MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines Supreme Court said online surveillance by authorities is illegal without a court order and that online libel is a criminal offense, in a ruling Tuesday that allows a cybercrime law to be enforced.
The court ruled on petitions in which opponents argued the 2012 law is unconstitutional and restricts freedom of expression.
The judges found only parts of the law unconstitutional, such as provisions allowing real-time collection of online data by authorities and shutting down a website without due process, court spokesman Theodore Te said.
It upheld libel online as a criminal offense but only the author of a libelous posting can be charged, Te said. Those who merely receive or comment on the post are not liable, he added.
Rep. Neri Colmenares of the left-wing Bayan Muna party, which opposed the law, said the court also kept a provision that will penalize libel with a maximum 12-year imprisonment or a fine of at least 200,000 pesos ($4,400). The law aims to combat Internet crimes such as hacking, identity theft, cybersex and online child pornography. The law was suspended shortly after it passed in 2012, but it can now be implemented except for the unconstitutional provisions.
Opponents are considering whether to appeal to the court for reconsideration.
Law Professor Jose Jesus Disini, one of the petitioners, told ABS-CBN television removing the provision of real-time monitoring of online traffic data without a court order was a "major win" for the right to privacy but lamented the decision to keep libel a criminal offense.
He said he will study the decision more closely to determine "if it makes sense to file a motion for reconsideration."
The left-wing New Patriotic Alliance and journalist groups have called for the decriminalization of libel to remove it as a threat to free speech.
"It may not be a crime to like, share or react or comment on a certain post, but the original author may still be charged with libel, and that could be anyone," said Renato Reyes, the alliance's secretary general.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, one of the petitioners, criticized the court's ruling as a step "a century backward" for retaining the old libel law.
It said the court made the Internet, "a once infinite venue for expression, into an arena of fear, a hunting ground for the petty and vindictive, the criminal and autocratic."
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