They called it a dark day for the Philippines. And for a few moments on the morning of October 3, it quite literally was, with thousands of users █████ing out their comments and profile pictures in protest of the passing of R.A. 10175, officially known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, colloquially referred to as the Anti-Cybercrime Law, and dubbed by more enthusiastic dissenters as E-Martial Law or September 21: The Sequel.
At the heart of the debate is the provision on online libel, and by far the popular view is that it stifles freedom of speech, discourages criticism and discourse, and grants the government too much latitude to act on what they deem as ‘malicious’ or overly-critical speech and clamp down with vicious force.
Others have pointed out that the penalty for online libel is harsher than ‘offline’ libel and rape, and it brings us back to the Dark Ages, which at the very least seems like a factual claim.
It’s interesting to note though how worked up we were about the issue. Many of us were not yet conscious or rational during the time of Martial Law, so we couldn’t, by flesh and blood, relate to the experience of government repression and censorship. All our lives we have been allowed to exercise our right to free speech, and we do not know what it is like to have it taken away. At most we can relate only by analogy, yet as soon as the first bells sounded, we were the very first to answer the call.
Why? Was it because, having been used to the luxury of free speech all our lives, we were loath to have it taken away? Was it triggered by the stirrings of our national memory, our collective consciousness? Or was it typical youthful emotion and exuberance? I suppose it have must been all of them, and more.
But at the bottom of it, I think much of the fear was rooted in practical concerns. By threatening our online identities, the passage of the Bill brought forth a very real threat to our ‘real’, non-virtual lives. This demonstrates how the landscape of the Internet has shifted, and has brought about some very important changes in the laws of engagement, and consequently, our behavior online.
It used to be that being online was like living in a global city where everyone went about on their own business and nobody knew your name. Because you were anonymous, you could do whatever you want and be whoever you wanted; there were absolutely no restrictions on the identities you assumed, the groups you joined, and the things you said. If things heated up on one account you could always create another one.
Because you were invisible, you could not be held accountable. Because you could not be held accountable, you could lose your inhibitions and say whatever the hell you wanted. There was a large incentive to disinhibit, to misbehave, because there were no penalties. This was how trolling and flaming became so popular in the first place.
Nowadays, the Internet still resembles that place in a lot of ways. It’s still cool to be a troll, and comment threads are still filled with sometimes-useless, sometimes-vitriolic and sometimes-intellectual remarks from anonymous users. If you participate in online games or post in message forums, you assumed an identity different from yourself.
This is not inherently a bad thing; the lack of inhibitions online also allowed you to feel free and comfortable, and enjoy and express yourself in a way that you might not in a normal social setting.
But with the rapid rise of social media usage and participation, users online are becoming less and less anonymous. Facebook requires you to enter your real name, sex and birthday in order to create an account. Google+ is even stricter with this; if your name doesn’t sound real, it will reject your registration. Of course, there are still ways to bypass these requirements, but they require some effort, and if others know it’s a pseudonym they are less likely to interact normally with you.
But this also means that people can now be held accountable—or otherwise judged—for what they say or post online. We see it happening already. Post an offensive status or an unflattering picture of yourself on Facebook, and you could be burned by your entire social network, if not your prospective employers. If the Internet used to be a sort of urban sprawl, now it has evolved to become a sort of global village where everyone could potentially know your name, your activities, and your whereabouts.
I think this is why the Anti-Cybercrime Law has aroused such a panicked and passionate response. It enables the government to actually regulate our online lives and punish us for whatever they construe as misbehaving. It forces us to regulate ourselves, and nobody wants self-regulation. After all, if you could be held accountable for what you had to say, why say anything at all?
By JAMES SORIANO
reposted from mb.com.ph