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In search of a free Internet

The recent signing of the Terror Law raised questions regarding the idea of Internet freedom. Under this, social media posts, regardless of evidence suggesting the unlikelihood of anything malevolent, would be put under a microscope. 

With recent incidents, including the questionable arrests of social media users who have either been vocally or passively critical of the national government, highlighting a culture of hypocrisy within the justice system, the question now lingered in the minds of users: is the Internet truly free?

Among those who stood their ground in advocating for a true free Internet is the UP Internet Freedom Network (UP INTERNET), an organization of several UPLB students formed last July 11. The group is dedicated to defending the freedom of expression from attacks and threats, such as the invasion of data privacy, defending the right to access quality Internet connection and information.

UP INTERNET was created following a rise in cybercrime cases, reports of institutional disregard for data privacy, and threats of Internet shutdown amidst the pandemic. 

Recalling numerous counts of human rights violations and an apparent disregard for the wellbeing of Filipino citizens, the organization claimed that the masses were being silenced by the national government.

“It is also under the administration of [President Rodrigo] Duterte that attacks against our freedom of expression have been repeatedly executed to silence dissent,” they said.

According to UP INTERNET founding president Mac Andre Arboleda, they envision an Internet that upholds human rights.

“And so our mission is to achieve a democratized Internet that prioritizes human rights and a society where technology is used to empower people, and not used against us,” Arboleda said.

Arboleda shared that despite the difficulties the founding members faced, they made time to establish the alliance because of the advocacy matters to everyone, especially now that people are increasingly dependent on the internet.

“By educating ourselves and others, we hope to organize more people so we can push for genuine ICT reforms, and ultimately achieve open and safer cyberspace,” he added. 

But UP INTERNET is not alone in this quest for an absolutely free cyberspace. After all, the pursuit of such vision has been an uphill battle for the longest time. 

Where are we now in this struggle for a free Internet and how far have we come?

In the name of cyber-security

Due to the world’s current state during this pandemic, there had been an increase in purchases of smart home devices, thus increasing potential victims of cybercrimes. 

In 2017, the Official Annual Cybercrime Report estimated that the cost of cybercrime would amount to six trillion dollars by 2021, which doubles the 2015 figure of three trillion dollars. The implication of this is that cybercrimes will be more profitable than the global trade of all major illegal drugs combined.

Recent incidents like the mass duplication of social media accounts of students and individuals who were vocal critics of the government, which the government dismissed as it said to be a system glitch. But there were reported cases that dummy accounts sent threats to the original ones. 

Similar cases were also spotted at the UPLB community, as student leaders receive various threats in their social media accounts and personal contact numbers; zoom meetings, held by students, were also bombarded by perpetrators showing Nazi propaganda videos and racial slurs.

These incidents show that online learning is vulnerable to cybercrime offenses, which concern students’ security and privacy.

Launched in the Philippine Multi-stakeholder Forum on Internet Governance, Human Rights, and Development last March 23, 2015, the 2015 Internet Declaration of Rights focuses on ten key areas. Among them include data privacy and protection, freedom of expression and information, and quality Internet access and security.

The state of cyberspace now

An annual report by Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organization (NGO) titled “The Crisis of Social Media” showed that internet freedom continues to decline for the ninth consecutive year since 2010. The study highlighted intimidation and harassment experienced by journalists and activists.

These instances of intimidation and harassment often happen to women journalists, especially those who are critical of the actions that the government takes towards certain issues.

Social media platforms have enabled collection and analysis of data of its millions of users worldwide, making mass surveillance accessible to almost everyone, and transforming a once liberating technology into a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation.

Facebook, notably a breeding ground of numerous red-tagging, propaganda pages, and Google proposed censoring their contents but was defeated by shareholders. They proposed that private companies take steps to ensure freedom of Internet access and establish a review of its operations’ effect on human rights. 

Last April, Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, admitted to a data breach in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports revealed that the information of 538 million users are being sold at the dark web for only $250. China’s industry and technology regulators summoned Weibo representatives and gave them an order to enhance data security and improve its privacy policies in accordance with the country’s cybersecurity law.

This is not an isolated case as incidents of cybercrime occur every 39 seconds, predicted to cost up the global economy around $6 trillion annually by 2021. As the population shifts its dependence to the internet, in an attempt to minimize physical interaction, for academic and business-related transactions, concerns over the recurrence of these abuses and attacks are warranted.

Rights at risk

After the polarizing Terror Law was signed last July 18, Armed forces of Philippines Chief, Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay wants to regulate social media contents under the act to be “one step ahead of terrorist”. This suggested a danger to media and freedom of expression by providing an open-ended basis for prosecuting speech; while defenders claimed that this was a necessary measure to eradicate any form of terrorism, critics such as the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) singled-out the vague and broad criteria for labeling alleged “terrorists.”

“This is the platform now being used by terrorists to radicalize, to recruit and even plan terrorist acts,” said new Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay. He recommended that regulating of social media should be included in the implementing rules and regulation of the Anti-Terrorism Law. Several militants have expressed fear towards this recommendation. Due to a possible violation of right of privacy, the Commission of Human Rights disagreed with Lt. Gen. Gapay’s recommendation.

This recommendation of Lt. Gen. Gapay is against the promise of the Duterte administration that the right to freedom of expression, dissenting opinions, and protest actions will be respected and protected in the wake of Terror Law’s effectiveness. An October 7 request for the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) Regional Director to investigate Facebook live-streams, specifically those featuring social and political commentary, could even be viewed as an extension of this reality.

Following Duterte’s July 27 address, people protested, both through offline and online platforms. State forces employed various tactics to break their attempt to get their message  to who they called “fascist President  Duterte”. 

A matter of privacy

According to the Department of National Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana, social media should not be covered by the Anti-Terrorism Law. It should not regulate social media because it is not included in its mandate and would violate the freedom of speech.

Among the provisions of the law that many deemed to be questionable, included warrantless-arrest and detention of individuals under the mere suspicion of planning terroristic activities.

Speeches, writings, proclamations, emblems, banners, and other representations inciting the intent of terrorism could carry a punishment of 12 years in prison. However, the national government insinuates that the ATL is not intended to punish advocacy, protest, dissent, industrial action, and strikes, so long as they do not create “a serious risk to public safety.”

In a statement released by UP INTERNET, they mentioned how the press suffered as countless journalists and media organizations have been threatened, arrested, killed, and shut down, in an attempt to stifle criticism and dissent. Especially with the Anti-Terrorism Act in effect, the government’s cyber-surveillance is legalized, making it easier for them to stomp on basic freedom.

In specific incidents, like the arrest of a teacher for posting an online post offering 50 million for Duterte slay, and four women who joined an online rally at Bulacan have been summoned by the police to answer for being deemed as “criminals”.

Stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHD), everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.

Advancements in technology will create opportunities for human development, but it could also generate a wave of human rights challenges. Safety protocols for democratic freedom to prevent the internet from becoming a tool for oppression and tyranny must be ensured as the things enjoyed on the internet are human rights itself.

The Internet Declaration Rights is what the Internet should be – free and democratic, as it is utilized not only as a platform for education and communication, but also for the continuous development and progression of advocacies safeguarding human rights. [P]

Photo by Gerard Laydia

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