It was the government’s turn last Tuesday to defend the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Solicitor-General Francis Jardeleza single handedly defended the law. The Justices grilled him for at least three and a half hours straight. Almost all of the questions of the magistrates focused on libel and Section 12 of the law, which authorizes law enforcement agents to gather or collect real-time data.
Justice Roberto Abad fired the opening salvo. He observed that while the government has argued that libel is not being penalized for the first time under the new law, Congress must still be presumed to have a purpose for including libel as a content-related offense under the new law. Justice Abad theorized that it must be to make it clear that defamatory statements in the Internet had to be expressly declared by Congress as now capable of being punished as libel. The
Sol-Gen countered that what Congress did was merely to provide publication in the Internet as a qualifying circumstance. He argued that cyber libel was the only offense under the new law that was not subject to a higher penalty, a conclusion that was disputed not just by Justice Abad, but also by Justices Teresita De Castro and Justice Diosdado Peralta. All of them asked the government to show where in the new law this exception may be found. The Sol-Gen then, responding to a question from Justice Abad, opined that reposting a libelous post on Facebook may be subject also to a libel prosecution, but pressing the “Like” button may not be as the latter may represent only an opinion. Justice Abad though observed that while the Solicitor-General has opinions on these matters, the reality is because of the uncertainty on the legal consequences of reposting and liking, this may lead to the chilling of the rights of the citizens to express themselves on facebook.
Justice Antonio Carpio reiterated his view that the current jurisprudence on libel recognizing the actual malice rule in New York Times vs. Sullivan has rendered the libel provisions of the Revised
Penal Code as unconstitutional. Justice Marvic Leonen then asked why Congress, despite the jurisprudence, insisted on a cross-reference to Art. 355 of the Revised Penal Code despite the fact that this provision literally runs counter to jurisprudence. He then asked if the Court should not make a declaration that Sec 4(C) 4 of the cyberlaw is unconstitutional to highlight the distinction between the codal provision on libel in the RPC and jurisprudence. He asked: “may it be that the RTC Judge who convicted Adonis applied the language of the RPC and not the jurisprudence on actual malice?”
Anent the collection of real-time data, there appears to be consensus amongst the Justices that without judicial intervention, the section may lead to an invasion of privacy. Justice Antonio Carpio asked the Sol-Gen how he would feel if the government procures a record of his phone history from his phone company without his consent and whether this would be constitutional. The Sol-Gen replied: “constitutional but barely”, highlighting that these phone records would be “external” information for which there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. What the right covers would be the content of these individual calls, which he described as “internal” information. But where the Justices had great misgivings was on “due cause” as basis for the collection of the real time data. Justice Carpio elicited an admission from the government that it is uncertain who will determine that “due cause” exists. The Sol-Gen opined that it should be the law enforcement agency itself. Moreover, Justice Carpio bewailed why law enforcement agencies want to take a short cut. In his words, law enforcement agents “can always go to a Judge for a warrant”. He even said that the
Supreme Court could even designate Judges to act on these applications for warrants. Justice De Castro observed the absence of a definition of “due cause” which in turn, Justice Mariano Del Castillo said might be “subject to abuse”.
There too were important points raised on cybersex. The Sol-Gen explained that the legislative intent of the provisions against cybersex was to penalize prostitution on the Internet and trafficking
and not to punish obscenity. Justice Abad inquired why the law did not mention prostitution and trafficking in the language of the law. Justice Reyes also asked if the cyber law’s provision on “luring” is superfluous given that the same is already punished in a special statute.
Pursuant to tradition, the Chief Justice asked the last questions. She observed that almost all of the questioned provisions of the law are found in the section on “content related offenses” and that these provisions appeared to be “forced insertions”. She was comparing the “loose” language of these provisions with the very precise language of the other offenses such as cyber squatting. She then asked if there was a way of saving the legislation even if the questioned provisions were
to be declared unconstitutional. The Sol-Gen responded that under the principle of separation of powers, the clear intent of Congress is to penalize all those acts classified as content related offenses.
I received a tweet asking if the nation should now say “kudos” to the Supreme Court. Well, my reply is: too soon. My oral argument against the cyberlaw was my 10th opportunity to argue before the Court. The lesson I’ve learned is this: Never celebrate until the decision is actually handed down.
Lets continue to pray and hope that the supremacy of the Constitution will once more be upheld.