MANILA – The Philippine government faced a barrage of Internet protests on Wednesday as a cybercrime law went into effect that could see people given long jail terms for posting defamatory comments online.
Major news outlets, bloggers, rights activists and other critics turned their social media profile pages black to express their outrage over the law, which also allows the government to close down websites without a warrant.
Thousand of furious tweets were posted on Twitter, with the hashtag #notocybercrimelaw becoming the top trend on the microblogging site in the Philippines on Wednesday, according to two trend mapping websites.
“They signed and implemented this law because government officials can’t handle criticism,” said one tweet from @PmlFlrs.
Senator Teofisto Guingona, one of the few members of parliament who opposed the bill that President Benigno Aquino signed into law last month, also stepped up his campaign to have it overturned.
“The implementation of the law… will take back our citizens to the Dark Ages where freedom of speech and expression were not recognised,” he said in a statement.
Many provisions of the cybercrime law aim to fight a range of online crimes not deemed controversial, such as fraud, identity theft, spamming and child pornography.
However, one provision makes any libellous comments posted online a criminal offence, with the penalty of up to 12 years in jail much tougher than for traditional media.
The Department of Justice also now has the power to close down websites and monitor online activities, such as email or messaging, without a warrant.
The Philippines has one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies. But critics say the law echoes tactics to silence and monitor critics used by dictator Ferdinand Marcos when he imposed martial law in the 1970s.
Aquino’s spokespeople have repeatedly defended the law as necessary to fight cybercrime, while insisting his administration would uphold freedom of speech online.
But amid the backlash, some of the politicians who voted for the bill said they were willing to get rid of the controversial provisions.
“At the end, we should be humble enough to admit we may have made a mistake and we can still amend the law,” said Congressman Sonny Angara, whose father, Senator Edgardo Angara, authored the cybercrime bill.
Critics have also filed petitions to the Supreme Court calling on it to rule that the law is unconstitutional.