On October 3, 2012 (in my timezone, which would be early October 2 for most of you), I and millions of internet users in the Philippines have officially become criminals, liable to be jailed for up to 12 years.

I will understand if you don’t care. After all, the Philippines seems like such a small, inconsequential place for most to bother with. But if you believe in the right to free speech, the right to express yourself even when you’re in the minority, then please. Listen, understand. Help us spread the word, get others to condemn this act, for one simple reason: the restricting of one’s freedom to express ideas, thoughts, and opinions, for whatever reason, is wrong.

On October 3, a law called the Cybercrime Prevention Act takes into effect in the Philippines. While this sounds very right and proper, this particular law bans (among other things that should be rightfully banned, like hacking, child pornography, and the like) cybersex and online libel.

Well, you think. Online libel can’t be that bad.

Oh, it gets worse.

The Philippine definition of online libel is best summed up as “anything that can be misconstrued as criticism against any one individual, regardless of whether it is the truth or otherwise“.

Criticizing a corrupt politician constitutes online libel.

Complaining about inefficient administration constitutes online libel.

The problem with the Philippine definition is that online libel is so broad and unspecific that nearly anything you say can be counted as it, as long as it’s in opposition to what the ‘injured’ party says.

The fact that is so broad enables politicians or people in positions of power to exercise this law against people with dissenting opinions or to stamp out critics, regardless of whether the latter are in the right.

And libel is criminalized here. It’s not a civil suit. (This is a throwback to the days of America’s shaky colonial rule over the Philippines, where libel was criminalized to dissuade critics. This was in the 1940s. No one has thought of changing it since.)

With regards to curtailing freedom of speech and content, it is in many ways similar to the previously squashed SOPA bill. Even worse, considering the jailtime.

Oh, wait. There’s more. You’re going to love this.

1. Liking, tweeting or resharing said ‘online libel’ will also mean YOU get jailtime, too. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t write the original entry.

2. Posts, likes, and tweets are retroactive. That means they can jail you for posts, tweets, or likes you’ve made BEFORE the law went into effect, as far back as 2009.

3. Sarcasm still counts as libel.

4. The Department of Justice can block your access to the internet or to other computer files without a search warrant.

5. Convictions can mean up to twelve years of jail time or a P1,000,000 fine (about $20,000. Minimum wage is roughly $10 a day, but usually for jobs with a diploma. Actual wages can go 50% lower than stated, and that’s a GOOD wage for most of the poor).

6. Then they can charge you again for another law that bans printed libel, resulting in more jailtime. They do not apply double jeopardy in this case.

Cybersexing is a crime, too. Well, maybe child pornography can be avoided with this, right? Except child pornography has already been addressed by another law, it’s merely reaffirmed here. Owing to the Filipino lawmakers’ penchant for broadness, ‘cybersex’ is literally anything that constitutes “The willful engagement, maintenance, control, or operation, directly or indirectly, of any lascivious exhibition of sexual organs or sexual activity, with the aid of a computer system, for favor or consideration.”

Sounds a lot like ALL kinds of pornography, don’t you think? The Philippines, I might add, is an industry geared toward exporting labor. This means husbands / wives are forced to find work abroad for better pay, and do not return home for months.

How did this all start?

Once upon a time, there lived this Senator called Vicento “Tito” Sotto III. He was against the Reproductive Health bill, which if passed, would provide contraceptives and sex education to the poor to minimize overpopulation in the city and infant / maternal death rates. He is a strong backer of the Philippine Catholic Church, which considers contraceptives akin to “abortion” (despite abortion not being a part of the RH bill. It is, in fact, still illegal). The Church has a strong hold in this country, with over 80% Catholics, and funds many politicians.

In Sotto’s speech where he denounces this bill, several bloggers and internet users discovered that he plagiarized text from at least five different U.S. bloggers, including one named Sarah Pope, and from another who was pro-choice, but twisted in his speech to sound anti-choice. Both bloggers expressed dismay at being plagiarized, and he was called out for it. Sotto refused to apologize, and claimed he hadn’t plagiarized because ‘she’s just a blogger’, despite his lawyer confirming that he, in fact, did.

In another speech, Sotto then plagiarized a portion of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy’s speech, then claimed this was not the case, as the text had been converted to Filipino. Therefore, he argued, it can’t be plagiarized because Robert Kennedy can’t speak Filipino.

You might at this point begin to realize the quality of intelligence of some of the senators here.

Bloggers and internet users refused to back down. Sotto then issues a veiled threat regarding ‘regulating blogging’. A few days later, he inserts an online libel provision to the CyberCrime Prevention Act bill that was not present during previous readings of the bill, which was duly passed with only one dissenting vote from a Senator Guingona.

President Noynoy Aquino then proceeded to sign it into law. The irony is not lost on many of us here. His father, Ninoy Aquino, was an advocate for freedom of speech during the 1970s martial law, and literally gave up his life in the process for it. Ninoy’s popularity is what ushered his relatively inexperienced son into office – only to sign what constitutes as E-Martial law instead.

A couple of senators later came forward to admit that they hadn’t read the amendment clearly, which makes it all the more frightening that they voted for something they didn’t even understand in the first place.

The Reproductive Health bill has been in limbo for nearly fourteen years in the Philippines. Same goes for the Freedom of Information Act, which would ensure government transparency. And yet this bill with its controversial clause was enacted into law within DAYS.

Facebook accounts turn black in protest, the law is trending on Reddit. Human rights groups have condemned this law. Anonymous Philippines has been activeForbes has spoken out against it. But government here has been notorious for turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the protests of the people, instead pandering to cronies and corruption instead.

Sometimes I can’t help but admire friends living in Western countries. Vote republican or democrat, this labor party or that, but you are still free to express yourselves however you may. Living in a country where religion is the all-powerful, I can no longer say the same. Many people believe this is a ruse to take people’s attention away from the RH bill, and I don’t disagree.

But despite all this, many of my fellow Filipinos refuse to back down, and have resolved to continue posting, liking, tweeting, and resharing what they like, regardless of consequence. Because when you back down, they win.  It’s as simple as that.

So for any of you people it will be a normal day at October 3 (or 2), 2012.

I, on the other hand, will be living in October 3, 1970, because this law has just set this nation’s progress back by at least forty years.

Be thankful for the freedom that you have, and keep fighting for it.

That’s what we’re doing.

 The Cybercrime Prevention Act law.

[ Image credit to Mr. Bawagan, who I will not link to here for reasons fairly obvious in this post.]