Inquirer’s concerns on cyberlibel ‘exaggerated’
The Inquirer’s Sept. 20 editorial is exaggerated: The cyberlibel issues raised have been heavily debated for over 10 years. The critics dismissing Sen. Tito Sotto (who introduced the libel amendment) as ignorant and careless would surely not say the same of Sen. Edgardo Angara (the law’s sponsor), a meticulous lawyer.
First, as Angara implied, it is beyond debate that libel applies to Internet “writing” even without the cybercrime law. Of course, this also applies to the doctrine restricting libel. Americans emphasizing anonymous free speech’s central place on the Internet highlight how their own founding fathers wrote anonymous articles debating their constitution centuries ago.
Second, regardless of media, libel is understood not as a mere crime but a classic restriction on free speech. Our democracy embraces that such restrictions must be minimal, given this right’s fundamental nature.
For example, the “public official” doctrine makes it difficult for Sotto to cry libel against everyone on Twitter lambasting him for plagiarism. The broader “public figure” doctrine restricts libel in relation to a person who “enjoys great fame or notoriety,” “has thrust himself into public view,” or has become involved “in an issue of public interest.” Robert Blair Carabuena would have difficulty crying cyberbullying against everyone on Facebook lambasting him for assaulting a government traffic enforcer in the middle of a public street.
Cyberlaw circa 2000 soothes the Inquirer’s (and Raissa Robles’) concerns with surprisingly low-tech reasoning:
1. E-mailing an article or link is arguably not libel in the way passing a newspaper is not (and more so the vaguer Facebook like), with a distinction made for the conscious mental act of authorship. Thus, one does not sue a newsstand for libel, a line of reasoning later extended to Internet service providers.
2. It is possible for a reader to sue an Internet author in a court far from where the author lives, but this is equally possible for authors for publications with very wide circulations. Judges quickly understood that it is too crude to approach libel on the idea that the Internet can be accessed from anywhere, and developed doctrines restricting suits to venues with sensible connections to the litigants. The Philippine Supreme Court already rejected the idea that an Internet libel suit can be filed in any remote municipality with Internet access, explicitly saying this was to prevent harassment.
3. Courts have developed tests to determine when it is justified to order Internet providers to divulge anonymous users’ identities to allow them to be sued, recognizing that anonymous speech is an important part of free speech.
The Inquirer correctly emphasized that the last-minute appearance of libel in the cybercrime law may be abused as a pretext for harassment. The solution, however, is for the media to help educate society on human rights in hi-tech contexts.
—OSCAR FRANKLIN TAN,
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