MANILA - A new cybercrime law in the Philippines that could see people sentenced to 12 years in jail for posting defamatory comments on Facebook or Twitter is generating outrage among netizens and rights groups.
The stated aim of the cybercrime law is to fight online pornography, hacking, identity theft and spamming in the conservative Catholic nation amid police complaints they lack the legal tools to stamp out Internet crime.
However it also includes a blanket provision that puts the country's criminal libel law into force in cyberspace, except that the penalties for Internet defamation are much tougher compared with old media.
It also allows authorities to collect data from personal user accounts on social media and listen in on voice/video applications, such as Skype, without a warrant.
Teenagers unwarily retweeting or re-posting libellous material on social media could bear the full force of the law, according to Noemi Dado, a prominent Manila blogger who edits a citizen media site called Blog Watch.
"Not everyone is an expert on what constitutes libel. Imagine a mother like me, or teenagers and kids who love to rant. It really hits our freedoms," Dado told AFP.
Compounding the concerns, those teenagers or anyone else who posts a libellous comment faces a maximum prison term of 12 years and a fine of one million pesos ($24,000).
Meanwhile, newspaper editors and other trained professionals in traditional media face prison terms of just four years and fines of 6,000 pesos.
While harsh criminal libel legislation remains in force in other parts of Asia, Dado said the Philippine law sent the wrong signal in a country that overthrew the military-backed Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship just 26 years ago.
Dado, a lawyer's wife known in the local online community as the "momblogger", is among a group of bloggers and other critics of the libel element of the cybercrime law campaigning for it to be repealed.
Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the law was having a chilling effect in the Philippines, which has one of the world's highest per capita rates of Facebook and Twitter users.
"Anybody using popular social networks or who publishes online is now at risk of a long prison term should a reader -- including government officials -- bring a libel charge," Adams said.
About a third of the Philippines' nearly 100 million people use the Internet, with 96 percent them on Facebook, according to industry figures.
Five petitions claiming the law is unconstitutional have been filed with the Supreme Court.
Senator Teofisto Guingona, the lone opponent when the bill was voted on in the Senate, has filed one of the petitions to the Supreme Court.
"Without a clear definition of the crime of libel and the persons liable, virtually any person can now be charged with a crime -- even if you just re-tweet or comment on an online update or blog post," Guingona told the court.
"The questioned provisions... throw us back to the Dark Ages."
The five petitions all say the law infringes on freedom of expression, due process, equal protection and privacy of communication.
University of the Philippines law professor Harry Roque, who filed one of the petitions, said the Philippines was one of a shrinking number of countries where defamation remained a crime punishable by prison.
Part of the penal code that was drawn up 82 years ago, it goes against the trend in many advanced democracies such as the United States and Britain where defamation is now punished with fines rather than imprisonment, Roque said.
Amid the public backlash, some of the senators who voted for the cybercime law have started to disassociate themselves from it, even claiming they did not read the provision on libel.
However presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda has defended the cybercrime law.
"The Cybercrime Act sought to attach responsibilities in cyberspace.... freedom of expression is always recognised but freedom of expression is not absolute," he told reporters on Thursday.
Nevertheless, Lacierda said the law could still be refined. He called for critics to submit their concerns to a government panel that will issue by the end of the year specific definitions of the law, such as who may be prosecuted.