SIM Registration Act: Will it end cybercrimes?
With the signing of Republic Act No. 11934 or the SIM Registration Act, much hope is pinned on eliminating the scourge of spam texts. Spam, because they are as ubiquitous as the canned luncheon meat that was everywhere during the postwar years. Spam texts are, at the minimum, an inconvenience to recipients as ads; at worse, they are a means to commit fraud and crimes, and to threaten people. Spam by definition is sent or distributed to as many recipients as possible to increase the likelihood of fishing for a victim. Hence, the term “phishing.” Spam that aims to defraud or scam can now be traced to the sender whom law enforcement authorities can now identify, arrest, and bring to justice.
Will the law end cybercrimes?
For context, this legislation is not the first of its kind. In 2012 or exactly 10 years ago, RA 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act, in Section 4(c)3 provided that unsolicited commercial communications or “the transmission of commercial electronic communication with the use of computer system which seek to advertise, sell, or offer for sale products and services are prohibited.”
Back then, the evil that the law sought to remedy was the indiscriminate use of technology by way of texts, messages, or email that take advantage of the speed and efficiency of networks to drive down the cost and increase viewership. Certainly, it was a much simpler and less harmful era.
The law was designed to cover a behavior that was considered a nuisance and therefore abhorrent—the intrusion into the space and time of persons who want to participate in the digital world. It also meant a lot of unnecessary traffic that affected networks.
This section, however, was challenged with several others before the Supreme Court. The Court invalidated certain sections of the law in 2014 for two reasons: First, the government was not able to present evidence that spam ads “reduce the ‘efficiency of computers.’” Perhaps in 2022, the courts can already take judicial notice of the extent of damage of billions of daily spam communications that constantly circulate the globe at lightning speed. Second, the Court said that “before the arrival of the age of computers, [we were] already receiving such unsolicited ads by mail,” which were never outlawed. It failed to distinguish the yawning difference between traditional snail mail, with its attendant costs and effort, and the instantaneous modern forms with negligible cost per capita and the ease of a single finger press.
The Court went on to say that “the recipient has the option of not opening or reading these mail ads.” That is true with spams. Their recipients always have the option “to delete or not to read them.” It considered unsolicited advertisements as legitimate forms of expression, including the flip side of not “deny[ing] a person the right to read his emails, even unsolicited commercial ads addressed to him.” But the techie justices today can now appreciate the issues in cyberspace, the concepts of “opt in” and “opt out,” and can treat spam for what it is—junk that is not speech.
In a sinister trajectory to today, unidentifiable or false social media messages are the defining problem in cyberspace, especially in the commission of cybercrimes.
Sadly, it is now moot and academic to think that if the Court then had been prescient enough to see and anticipate the problem of regulating a simpler facet of digital space—the problem of spam in adverts in 2012—the many ways it has mutated in 2022 may have been prevented or lessened. Implementation is key to good result in policy; enforcement requires experience. Adverts yesterday, crimes tomorrow.
For now, the question is—will the new law end spam? The short answer is no. Technology has been changing so rapidly that SIM registration only solves part of the equation of pinpointing the originator or perpetrator. It cannot address the anonymous access of the internet by criminal actors that are totally independent of SIMs.
Note, too, that in 2012, the Data Privacy Act was passed one month before the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Privacy rights are much better understood and asserted now, but this will require another essay to explain. It will be tricky to do a one-to-one match between an individual and a SIM card. A gray or black market will develop for unregistered or falsely registered ones.
The better approach is to restudy and redesign how we regulate cyberspace. It begins with a systemic review of the cybercrime law, at 10 years old, which needs an update and a reboot. In the meantime, we can continue to learn ways to protect ourselves—vigilance is the best form of protection in both physical or virtual worlds. While our policymakers try to figure out what works, spams and scams will still be everywhere.
Geronimo L. Sy,[email protected]
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