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Supreme Court extends TRO on cybercrime law

(Updated 5:24 p.m.) The Supreme Court on Tuesday extended until further notice the temporary restraining order it issued on the implementation of the controversial Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. The decision to extend the 120-day TRO was reached during the magistrates' regular en banc sesssion, presided over by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. "(The) TRO (on the) cybercrime case (is) extended until further orders from court," said the Supreme Court Public Information Office in a text message to reporters. President Benigno Aquino III signed the law in September last year, but the high court issued a TRO against its implementation in October following a wave of protests and petitions that assailed its constitutionality.  The original TRO is set to expire on Wednesday, February 6. Senators laud decision At least two senators lauded the Supreme Court for extending the TRO. "Mabuti ito sa atin sa Pilipinas sapagkat ang kataas-taasang hukuman natin ay sila na mismo ang nagrerepaso dito sa ating batas at kung anuman ang weakness nito ay mabibigyan ng lunas ng susunod na Congress," said Sen. Edgardo Angara, the law's principal author. For his part, Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, one of the petitioners against the law, said his fellow petitioners "must be congratulated for standing up for the people’s rights." "Our thanks also go to Filipino netizens who consistently waged a good fight against RA 10175, online and offline," he said in a statement. Early in January, the high court started hearing the oral arguments of 15 petitioners against the law, as well as the side of the Office of the Solicitor General in defense of RA 10175. In the petitioners' presentations last January 15, they expressed fears that the law would create a "chilling effect" on people's rights. They said certain provisions of the law violate a person's right to free speech, due process, equal protection of the law, and against double jeopardy. The petitioners said that while they see the need for a cybercrime law, the legislation in its current form is too vague and overarching in its scope. Individual arguments vs the law University of the Philippines law professor and petitioner Harry Roque, who argued against the provisions of the law on electronic libel and cybersex, said there is a possibility that even Internet service providers (ISPs) could be held liable as the law also punishes those that "cause" the publication of libelous statements online. Rep. Neri Colmenares, in arguing against Section 6 and 7 of the law, said the statute is "badly crafted” and that “Congress must craft another law."   Section 6 punishes crime by one degree higher than those crimes covered by the Revised Penal Code, while Section 7 provides that prosecution under the law shall be without prejudice to any liability under the RPC. Lawyer Rodel Cruz argued against Section 19 of the law, which empowers the Department of Justice (DOJ) to block computer data found to be in violation of the law. UP Law professor Jose Jesus Disini Jr., meanwhile, tackled Section 12, which empowers law enforcement authorities to collect traffic data in real time with specified communications transmitted through a computer system. The last lawyer to argue against the law was Julius Matibag, who tackled Section 5(1) and (b), which punish an Internet user for "aiding or abetting a cybercrime offense." During the oral arguments, Justice Teresita Leonardo De Castro, an appointee of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, repeatedly raised her reservations against the law. De Castro also expressed fears the government may use the law as a means to gather all kinds of data about Internet users. She suggested that the lawyers "examine closely" the definition of terms in the law to determine if these are indeed "overbroad." Solicitor General's defense In defense of the law, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza during the continuation of oral arguments last January 29 admitted that Section 19 or the "take down clause" of the law is defective, but argued that it is not enough reason to void the entire law. Jardeleza said: “Reputation is reputation, defamation is defamation. This proposition is true whether we communicate through megaphones, letters, mimeograph, photocopied maters, xerox radio, TV, or cable; whether we communicate through memes, posters, tweets, shares, comments instagrams and the likes. “Libel is specially mentioned as a content offense, but Congress did not provide for penalty,” he said. “That should be welcomed because it is protection of speech.” Reactions to TRO extension Petitioners and observers alike welcomed the extension of the TRO, but were also quick to remind the public that the controversy is far from over.
In a press statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) praised the petitioners for clearly explaining "why this unjust law must be junked."
"The ruling is a victory for all those who oppose a statute that would serve to effectively stifle free expression, the free flow of information, the right ot privacy, and a host of other rights and freedoms," the NUJP said.
But the group also warned that the extended TRO must not "lull (the people) into complacency."
"Let us continue protesting and pounding on government’s doors until this law and everyone who sought to foist it on us are relegated to where they rightly belong – the garbage heap," NUJP stressed.
"The battle for Internet freedom and freedom of expression is far from over," said Renee Juliene Karunungan, council member of the Dakila – Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism and spokesperson of the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA).
PIFA is an umbrella organization of individuals and groups opposed to RA 10175, and counts among its members some of the petitioners against the law.
"The high court's decision to extend indefinitely its restraining order is in line with the State's responsibility, under section 10 of Article XVI of the Constitution, to ensure a 'policy environment for... the emergence of communication structures suitable to... the balanced flow of information into, out of, and across the country, in accordance with a policy that respects the freedom of speech and of the press,'" said Atty. Marlon Anthony Tonson of the PIFA legal team. "We continue to call for the repeal of this law which harms more than protects, which creates fear more than empowers and which tramples on more than upholds the rights of every Filipino to free speech and Internet freedom," Karunungan added.
Meanwhile,, a coalition seeking to establish a Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom, is hoping for a final decision on the law from Congress.
"While we hope that the SC will settle the unconstitutionality of the RA10175, the ultimate resolution lies with Congress. The Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom has been filed in the Senate, and we will continue to work with the members of the House for the filing of its counterpart," the group said. — Mark Merueñas and Kimberly Jane Tan/KBK/TJD, GMA News