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Duterte rejects SIM card, social media registration act due to privacy, free speech concerns

By NICK GARCIA Published Apr 15, 2022 2:31 pm

President Rodrigo Duterte has vetoed a bill seeking to require Filipinos to register their SIM cards and use their real names on social media, citing the need for a "more thorough study" amid individual privacy and free speech concerns, Malacañang announced on April 15.

"The President has decided to veto the consolidated Senate Bill No. 2395/House Bill No. 5793," acting palace spokesman Martin Andanar said in a statement.

Under the measure, citizens buying SIM cards must provide to public communication entities (PTEs), or telecom companies, their personal information that includes their full name, birthday, address, and photo from government IDs. Existing subscribers with active services will be given 180 days to register, and failure to do so will result in the deactivation of their numbers.

Telcos like Globe, Smart, and DITO will store the information in a central database.

Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter would also mandate users to use their real names and mobile numbers in creating accounts.

The bill reportedly aims to curb disinformation, anonymous online defamation, trolling, and libel, among others, and prevent terrorism, text scams, and bank fraud.

Those who would use "fictitious identities" to register their SIM cards or social media accounts will face imprisonment for at least six years, if not slapped with a fine of up to P200,000, or even both.

Social media registration not included in original version

According to Andanar, Duterte noted that the inclusion of social media registration wasn't part of the bill's original version, which only mandated the SIM card registration.

"The President similarly found that certain aspects of state intrusion, or the regulation thereof," Andanar said, "have not been duly defined, discussed, or threshed out in the enrolled bill, with regard to social media registration."

While Duterte lauds the Congress for finding ways to address cybercrimes, the measure may also give rise "to a situation of dangerous state intrusion and surveillance threatening many constitutionally protected rights," Andanar said.

"It is incumbent upon the Office of the President to ensure that any statute is consistent with the demands of the Constitution, such as those which guarantee individual privacy and free speech."

Earlier criticisms

Concerned groups had earlier raised issues about the SIM Card Registration Act.

Non-governmental organization Democracy.Net.PH, while it acknowledges the bill's intention to curb cybercrime, said that there's a "cybersecurity disaster in the making," citing the government's data leak track record as well as what happened to Yahoo in 2013 and 2014 and Facebook in 2019 and 2021.

"Should these reoccur and citizens’ names and phone numbers leak, it will open them to harassment, identity theft, financial crime, and other forms of harm," the group said on Feb. 25, adding that the bill poses a "dire threat" to children's safety because using their real names on social media might expose them to harassment, doxing, scams, kidnapping, even child sexual predators.

LGBTQ+ activist group Bahaghari on Feb. 26 said that not only the bill would become an instrument for worsened state terrorism, intensified red-tagging, and suppression of freedom of speech, but it will also put transgender people's lives in jeopardy as using their lived names might be tagged as fictitious identities under the measure.

"Many of the victories the LGBTQ+ community has fought for in terms of visibility and equality would be pushed back," Bahaghari said in a statement, "and we would be curtailing people's rights to healthy self-expression."

In 2018, non-profit organization Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) in a briefing paper said not only is the bill a "costly and difficult endeavor" but it also wouldn't stop criminals from "always" finding ways to circumvent the law.

The FMA cited Pakistan as an example, in which authorities recovered SIM cards supposedly used by militants involved in a terrorist attack in 2014. But the SIM cards were traced to unsuspecting citizens with no connection to the incident.

Citing a "logistical nightmare," the organization also questioned how the telco companies and the government would effectively implement the measure.

"A huge portion of the population, especially among the marginalized groups, do not have existing valid identification documents," it said, adding that the requirement might also trigger a "chilling effect" on mobile phone use due to the logistical difficulties, financial costs, and the privacy risks.

Above all, the FMA flagged the measure's potential use for surveilling investigative journalists, whistle-blowers, witnesses, marginalized groups, as well as victims of discrimination and oppression.