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In transit on Cyber Law

Few laws, if any, have received the minute scrutiny the Supreme Court justices gave Republic Act No. 10175. Thus, if I were a law dean, I would encourage my faculty, particularly those handling constitutional law and criminal law, to team-teach an elective to study the ramifications of the recent en banc decision of the high court on the consolidated cases questioning RA 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. The consolidated decision (the “Cyber Law decision,” for short), which disposed of several cases that was headed by Jose Jesus M. Disini Jr. et al. vs The Secretary of Justice et al., G.R. No. 203335, was issued last Feb. 18.

I have not seen such line-by-line consideration of a law by any branch of the government, other than in line vetoes by the executive branch in an approved budget.  Laws are ordinarily adjudged en toto as either valid or invalid, but the Supreme Court, in the Cyber Law decision, seemed to have examined RA 10175 line by line and, in its verdict, specified what its assessment was in each of the affected sections of the law.

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The majority opinion penned by Associate Justice Roberto A. Abad together with the separate concurrences and/or dissents by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno and Associate Justices Antonio T. Carpio, Arturo D. Brion, Jose Catral Mendoza, and Mario Victor F. Leonen constitute a rich source of material for considering in depth public policy issues raised by the decision.

This paper’s Talk of the Town (3/2/14) illustrates the decision’s many facets.  It published the views from three legal experts: Harry Roque on what the Supreme Court said about the doctrine of “overbreath,” Oscar Franklin Tan on the decision’s impact on the “public figure doctrine,” and Emerson S. Bañez on the metaphors used by the high court in dealing with “spam.”  Other lawyers will surely see different meanings depending on what aspect of the decision they happen to focus on.

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The number of petitions filed by itself, 15 in all, indicates the interest engendered by RA 10175. It includes lawyers and nonlawyers. The law, after all, deals with “…cyberspace, a system that accommodates millions and billions of simultaneous and ongoing individual accesses to and uses of the Internet. The cyberspace is a boon to the need for the current generation for greater information and facility of communication. But … it could not filter out a number of persons of ill will who would want to use cyberspace technology for mischiefs and crimes.”

Section 2 of RA 10175, Declaration of Policy, states in more detail what the law intends to achieve and how it intends to do it.  Recognizing, on one hand, the “vital role of information and communication industries … in the nation’s overall social and economic development,” and, on the other, “the importance of providing an environment conducive to the development, acceleration, and rational application and exploitation of information and communications technology…” as well as, thirdly, “the need to protect and safeguard the integrity of computer, computer and communications systems, networks and databases, and the data stored therein from all forms of misuse, abuse and illegal access…,”  the law enables the State to “adopt sufficient powers to effectively prevent and combat such offenses by facilitating their detection, investigation, and prosecution … and by providing arrangements for fast and reliable international cooperation.”

That burden is borne largely by Sections 4 and 5.  Section 4 enumerates (a) offenses against the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of computer data and systems; (b) computer-related offenses; and (c) content-related offenses.  Section 5 adds two other new offenses in the universe of crimes, namely “aiding and abetting in the commission of cybercrime” and “attempt in the commission of cybercrime.”  The rest of the law deals with penalties, and administrative implementation and enforcement.

RA 10175’s scorecard: Three sections or parts of sections were declared void for being unconstitutional (namely, Section 4(c)(3) on posting of unsolicited commercial communications); Section 12 on collection and recording of traffic data in real-time; and Section 19 on the authority granted to the Department of Justice to restrict or block access to suspected computer data.  Sixteen, ranging from some crimes enumerated in Section 4, to imposition of penalties in Sections 6 and 8, to enforcement, prosecution, and administrative matters, were considered valid.

The Supreme Court considered Section 4(c)(4), on online libel, as partly constitutional (with respect to the “original author”) and partly unconstitutional (with respect to those who simply receive the post and react).  Finally, Section 7 was left for future determination to await the application to an actual case. But that portion of Section 7 on the double charging of a person, respectively, for online libel and child pornography, both under RA 10175 and the Revised Penal Code (for online libel) or under RA 10175 and RA 9775 (for child pornography) was invalidated under the principle of double jeopardy.

It is obvious that the Cyber Law decision, despite nearly 40 pages of text to its detailed rulings, was not intended by the Supreme Court to be the last judicial word on the matter.

Ricardo J. Romulo is a senior partner of Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De Los Angeles.

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TAGS: Business Matters, Cybercrime law, opinion, Ricardo J. Romulo, Supreme Court
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