Why "Online Libel" Misses the Point

'Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err. It passes my comprehension how human beings, be they ever so experienced and able, can delight in depriving other human beings of that precious right.' -- Mahatma Gandhi, 1931



There's something wrong about the concept of 'online libel'. A story published in traditional media goes through a gauntlet of revising, editing and printing/broadcasting. When it gets printed, it's permanent. It also takes a large amount of effort and money for the aggrieved to refute what gets printed/broadcast/published. 

Hence libel in a way seeks to rectify the permanence by forcing the media establishment to admit it did wrong and to retract its statement in the same venue, at their own expense. It is a way to enforce fairness. 

Individually produced blogs, Twitter accounts and FB pages do not have the same mode of production. Content in online media is ephemeral and can easily be retracted/revised. You could easily set up your own blog, FB page and Twitter account to make counter-claims to defend yourself. 

Lastly, traditional libel cases almost always involve the publisher too, which gives the author the resources needed for defense. This is almost always not going to happen in 'online libel'. Are they going to sue Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube too because they 'published' the offending articles? Most likely not. In that case, the author is left to fend for herself.

Maybe the online libel provision will force online content producers to be more prudent and to check facts before they post something potentially damaging. But it will harm freedom of speech more by scaring ordinary people into subservience.

The Legislature couldn't grasp the concept that online media is a conversation between equals, rather than a one-way communication from the powerful media owners to the powerless consumers. Online media self-correct far more easily and quickly than traditional media. 

Passing this law and other similar ones -- like for example the criminalization of "camcording," which used to be a neutral term -- shows how detached our lawmakers are from the real world. In the age of social media, they are still struggling with outdated, outmoded concepts of media production and consumption. 

I'm very disappointed at how our lawmakers behaved in this debate. Sen. Sotto acted with impunity, using his position of power to get back at his critics. Sen. Cayetano washed her hands, saying she read her portion of the bill and left the rest for the others. PNoy said he read it thoroughly and found nothing wrong with it. 

These events just show that our current batch of politicians do not understand the age of social media. The first set of politicians who grasp the issues and make the right stand will win over the netizen voters. After all, we are a young population and the internet is occupied by us.

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Other opinions: 
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation's take. "In the Philippines, where the Internet is free from censorship, President Benigno Aquino III recently signed into law the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, a troubling development for free expression."
  • Forbes Magazine opinion. "Now, as someone who has been the target of many a vicious attack from commenters or forum posters, I can understand frustration with the nature of online anonymous criticism. But to actually try to make such a thing illegal? You wade into dangerous waters that anything resembling freedom of speech will likely drown in. " 

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Wrote this previously in a Facebook status -- because I couldn't see where my link to Notes went after FB's overhaul. Posting it here, with some amplifications after the initial comments and questions from friends.

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