Philippines

Philippines

Partly Free
66
100
A Obstacles to Access 16 25
B Limits on Content 27 35
C Violations of User Rights 23 40
Last Year's Score & Status
69 100 Partly Free

Overview

Continuing its downward trajectory, internet freedom declined yet again during the coverage period due to increased content manipulation, a growing number of libel cases related to online activity, and the proactive removal of content by news sites to forestall potential legal action. Signaling the shrinking space for critical reporting in the country, authorities and progovernment commentators alike upped their attacks against online outlets—extending their efforts to target the news site Rappler, as well as local fact-checking outlet Vera Files and other alternative media sites. Meanwhile, content manipulation grew more camouflaged and normalized during the May 2019 midterm elections, a worrying development for the diversity of online content.

The Philippines’ internet freedom decline has occurred amidst an erosion of political and civil rights under President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs since 2016 has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings as well as vigilante justice. Impunity remains the norm for crimes against activists and journalists.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • Fearing legal action, in February 2019, the Philippine Star proactively removed a 2002 article about a businessman who was suspected of involvement in a murder from its website (see B2).

  • Content manipulation tactics grew more insidious and entrenched within campaign strategies surrounding the May 2019 midterm elections, while hyperpartisan news outlets plagued the online environment (see B5).

  • Libel charges continued to be filed against journalists, bloggers, and ordinary users during the coverage period, culminating in the arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa in February 2019 (see C3).

  • Alternative news sites, many of them critical of the government and its policies, suffered distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks in December 2018 and January 2019 (see C8).

A Obstacles to Access

Internet penetration and average connection speeds continue to improve in the Philippines. The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) has begun piloting the National Broadband Plan (NBP) to lower costs and improve connectivity, and has selected a third telecommunications entity to enter the market, in the hopes of fostering more robust competition in the industry and improving service. The government also signed an agreement with Facebook to build high-speed internet infrastructure in the northern part of the country. However, authorities also ordered the shutdown of mobile phone networks during major events in a handful of cities in 2019.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 46

At the beginning of 2019, Philippines had a reported internet penetration rate of just over 71 percent of the country's total population of 107 million, according to Hootsuite, a social media management platform.1 The Inclusive Internet Index 2019 report ranked the Philippines 59 out of 100 countries in availability, which was determined by quality and breadth of available infrastructure.2 Internet usage via mobile devices far outweighs fixed-line connectivity. There were 68.4 active mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2018.3 As of 2017, there were only 5.5 fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.4

Both mobile and fixed broadband speeds in the Philippines improved slightly by the end of the coverage period—at 14.7 and 18.7 Mbps, respectively. Speeds remain relatively low compared to global averages of 27 Mbps for mobile speeds and 58.7 Mbps for fixed broadband.5

A number of projects are underway to improve access. In 2015, the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Office of the Department of Science and Technology—now the DICT—launched a project that aimed to provide free Wi-Fi in selected public places in the country. To institutionalize the project, President Duterte signed legislation in 2017 creating the Free Internet Access Program. The law requires public places such as transport terminals, hospitals, schools, and government offices to provide free Wi-Fi in main congregation points.6 As of May 2019, the DICT claims that it has provided free Wi-Fi access in more than 13,000 public locations.7 In another effort aimed at providing free, high-speed Wi-Fi, Google Philippines partnered with Smart Communications to implement the Google Station project in February 2019, establishing free Wi-Fi stations.8 At the launch of the project, 50 Wi-Fi stations were established.

In 2017, the president approved the launch of the Government Satellite Network (GSN), to be implemented by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), to transmit government-created videos, photos, and audio (see B5).9 The GSN is expected to provide internet connectivity to barangays, or local villages, that currently have none.10

In 2017, the DICT and the Bases Conversion and Development Authority signed a landing party agreement with Facebook for a project to build high-speed internet infrastructure that will improve the speed, affordability, and accessibility of broadband and internet access in the country.11 In exchange for using Facebook’s facility, which is set to open in 2020, the Philippine government will get 2 Tbps of international bandwidth free of charge.12 The DICT intends to use this bandwidth to support its free Wi-Fi program, and provide inexpensive internet to small service providers.

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 13

A digital divide exists in the Philippines, mainly around cost and geography.

Connectivity is most concentrated in densely populated urban areas, while many poor, rural areas remain largely underserved.1 To bridge this gap, President Duterte’s administration launched the NBP in 2017, which aims to lower costs and improve broadband connectivity.2 In October 2018, the DICT began a pilot test of its fiber backbone facility.3 In February 2019, the department received a 23.8 million Philippine peso ($460,000) grant from the US government to support the implementation of the national broadband network.4

According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2019 report, the Philippines ranks 82 out of 100 countries surveyed in its affordability index, defined by cost of access relative to income and the level of competition in the internet marketplace.5 The slow uptake of broadband internet in the country is largely due to steep subscription fees. A 2018 Alliance for Affordable Internet report noted that the need for submarine cables connecting islands in the Philippines increases connectivity costs.6

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 56

The government ordered the shutdown of mobile phone networks during major events in several cities in the coverage period. Critics are concerned about the normalization of internet and mobile network shutdowns, calling for a clearer policy that outlines the circumstances in which they may be implemented.1

The police routinely restrict mobile services and justify their actions as efforts to prevent possible terrorist attacks. For the Black Nazarene procession, a widely attended Catholic event in Quiapo, Manila in January 2019, the National Capital Region Police Office requested the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) and the DICT to jam telecommunications signals in the area around the procession "to prevent bomb attacks."2 Also in January, mobile signals were restricted for two days in different parts of Cebu during the Sinulog-Santo Niño Festival, also for security reasons.3 Similar restrictions occurred around other major festivals and events during the coverage period.4

One provider, PLDT, plays an outsized role in the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. The company5 owns the majority of fixed-line connections, as well as a 100,000-kilometer fiber-optic network that connects to several international networks;6 it also fully or partly owns five out of nine international cable landing stations.7 In line with its modernization plan, PLDT is investing $136.7 million in a new trans-Pacific cable system that will link its landing stations in Camarines Norte in the Philippines to Maruyama and Shima in Japan, and Los Angeles in the United States; the cable is expected to become operational in 2020.8 Meanwhile, in 2017, Globe Telecom launched a $250 million submarine cable that links Davao and the United States.9

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 46

At present, the telecommunications industry is dominated by two companies, although a new provider, Mislatel, rebranded as Dito Telecommunity Corp in July 2019 after the coverage period,1 is expected to become operational in the coming years. New service providers face legal obstacles in obtaining a congressional franchise, such as constitutional limitations on the people or companies that can operate a public utility.2

The telecommunications market is dominated by PLDT and Globe, which each have acquired a number of minor players over the last two decades.3 The market for mobile services is mostly split between the two companies.4 PLDT reported 60 million mobile phone subscribers as of December 2018,5 while Globe had 74 million.6 In late 2018, a third mobile provider, Mislatel—comprised of the Udenna Corporation,7 Chelsea Logistics, and the Chinese government-controlled China Telecommunications Corporation—was qualified in a government-led bidding process to enter the telecommunications industry.8 At the end of the coverage period, Mislatel was complying with postqualification requirements and expected to begin operations in 2020 or 2021.9

There were 400 internet service providers (ISPs) registered with the NTC in 2013, according to the most recent government data.10 All of them connect to PLDT or Globe. Internet service is currently classified as a value-added service and is therefore subject to fewer regulatory requirements than mobile and fixed-phone services. Companies entering the market go through a two-stage process. First, they must obtain a congressional license that involves parliamentary hearings and the approval of both the upper and lower houses of Congress. Second, they need to apply for certification from the NTC. Globe has separately complained of needing to obtain 25 permits to build a single cell site, a process that can last eight months.11

The Philippine Competition Act was signed in 2015, 25 years after it was first filed.12 The act seeks to protect consumers and preserve commercial competition, and established the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC).13 The law, however, does not prohibit monopolies, and will not prevent an entity from maintaining dominance in the market as long as it does not commit certain legally prohibited abuses.14

Since its establishment, the PCC has challenged the joint acquisition of the San Miguel Corporation’s telecommunications unit by PLDT and Globe in 2017, a deal that resulted in the two companies controlling about 80 percent of all available cellular frequencies.15 The Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed the deal’s validity.16 However, the PCC later said that the NTC could acquire wireless frequency from PLDT and Globe if the companies did not improve their services.17

Under the Public Service Act, foreigners may hold no more than a 40 percent stake in certain industries, including telecommunications.18

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 24

While national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology generally operate independently, all heads of government agencies, including regulatory bodies, are appointed by the president. This framework has led to instances of political interference.1

The DICT is responsible for planning, developing, and promoting the national ICT development agenda. There are three offices attached to the DICT: the National Privacy Commission, a regulatory and quasijudicial body tasked with monitoring and ensuring the country's compliance with international standards for data protection; the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordination Center; and the NTC, which regulates the industry with quasijudicial powers and supervises the provision of public telecommunications services.

In 2016, President Duterte appointed former Globe executive Rodolfo Salalima to serve as the DICT’s secretary.2 However, Salalima resigned in 2017, citing corruption and interference, without going into further detail.3 President Duterte, in turn, said that he had asked Salalima to resign because he was favoring Globe and had failed to facilitate the entry of other telecommunications players in the country.4

In November 2018, Duterte appointed incumbent senator Gregorio Honasan, a former military officer and long-time friend of the president,5 to head the DICT.6 In July 2019, Honasan was sworn in.7

B Limits on Content

While content is not systematically censored in the Philippines, instances of proactive content removal exemplifies the deteriorating environment for online publishing. Content manipulation worsened during the coverage period, as campaigns normalized the spread of misleading or fraudulent information during the midterm elections. The government continued its attacks against the online news outlet Rappler, and targeted other independent sources of information.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 66

No systematic government censorship of online content has been documented in the Philippines, and internet users enjoyed unrestricted access to both domestic and international sources of information during the coverage period. Internet users freely access social networks and communication apps including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and international blog-hosting services.

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 34

The government does not usually order the removal of online content, although there were some worrying instances of content removal during the coverage period.

In February 2019, the Philippine Star proactively removed from its website a 2002 article about Wilfredo Keng, a businessman who was suspected of involvement in the murder of a Manila councilman, after Keng threatened legal action against the outlet.1 The takedown took place only a few days after Rappler CEO Maria Ressa posted bail in connection with Keng’s libel case against the site (see C3).2 During the previous coverage period, in May 2018, Senate President Vicente Sotto wrote a letter to the Daily Inquirer's website, asking the publication to take down three articles from its website, published between 2014 and 2016, that linked him to the 1982 rape of an actress.3 The Daily Inquirer complied with the request and removed the articles.

Google occasionally reports receiving content removal requests from the Philippine government or law enforcement agencies. Between January and June 2018, there were no requests from the government to remove content.4 Facebook received a total of 30 content removal requests from the government between July and December 2018.5 Half were emergency requests, and the other half pertained to legal processes. In 37 percent of the requests, the platform provided some data.

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 44

Restrictions on the internet are generally fair and proportional to the stated aims. Content blocking is allowed under a law that requires ISPs to prevent access to child sexual abuse imagery.1 The police may request that ISPs block sites hosting such images, and ISPs typically comply with such orders.2

The proposed Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom, introduced in 2012, contains a provision that provides for court proceedings in cases where websites or networks are to be taken down, and prohibits censorship of content without a court order.3 Parts of this legislation were later absorbed into another bill creating a government agency for ICTs (see A5). The sections not included in that bill remain in the Magna Carta bill, which was pending in House and Senate committees over the coverage period. The newly elected Congress from May 2019 has yet to refile the bill as of September 2019.

The Anti-False Content Act, introduced in July 2019, after the coverage period, would provide authorities with significantly more power to issue takedown orders, “correct” false or misleading content, and block websites altogether, with no judicial oversight and limited ability to appeal decisions (see C2).4

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 24

Self-censorship remains a problem for those communicating online. Many journalists, for example, practice self-censorship due to the high level of violence against journalists and the increasing number of civil and criminal cases related to online activity.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a civil society organization, suggested in January 2019 that journalists may be self-censoring around issues related to corruption or illegal drugs.1 The center also asserted that the president's criticism of the press and online harassment has led journalists to use caution when investigating and reporting. Following its mission to the country in April 2019, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed similar concerns that cases against Rappler and worsening online harassment heightened fear and exacerbated online self-censorship.2

The Philippine Star’s February 2019 removal from its website of an article originally published in 2002 illustrates how legal action and harassment cause greater self-censorship among entities that publish online (see B2).3 The original Philippine Star article about Wilfredo Keng was quoted in a 2012 Rappler article that was the crux of Keng’s 2017 libel case against Ressa and a Rappler staff member (see C3). Fearing similar legal action, the Star chose to proactively censor itself.4

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 14

Online sources of information have been increasingly manipulated by the government and other actors, with commenters and trolls on social media distorting the information landscape online in an attempt to shape political outcomes.

Content manipulation was prevalent around the 2016 presidential election. Credible media reports found that commenters could earn at least 500 pesos ($10) per day operating fake social media accounts supporting President Duterte, or attacking his detractors.1 Other reports found that purveyors of these accounts earned 2,000 to 3,000 pesos ($40 to $60) per day.2 Automated accounts or bots were also reportedly used to spread political content.3

Many of the accounts that actively supported Duterte during the campaign have continued to operate since he took power, backing the president’s agenda.4 Some high-profile bloggers who supported Duterte’s campaign were given positions in the government or hired as government consultants.5

New research by the Australian National University’s New Mandala showed how online content manipulation was an important component of candidates’ campaign strategies for the May 2019 midterm elections.6 Disinformation campaigns used “more insidious and camouflaged” tactics, focusing on micro and nanotargeting, private social media groups with limited content moderation, and having non-political accounts spread election-related content in an effort to make it seem more genuine. Campaigns drew on not only short-term commentators charging relatively low fees, but also large-scale public relations companies that charged as much as 5.2 million pesos ($100,000) for their services.

Online media is also influenced by political actors. Hyperpartisan news outlets, including those on YouTube, have contributed to the growing preponderance of misleading and fraudulent content online.7 In April 2019, the Manila Times published a matrix of news outlets, journalists, and advocacy groups allegedly plotting to overthrow the president. Maria Ressa, Rappler, Vera Files, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Philippines National Union of People’s Lawyers were all mentioned as alleged conspirators in the “coup” and accused of routinely publishing fraudulent information intended to incite readers. The information about the supposed plot, which has not been corroborated, was reportedly provided by Duterte himself, and the story was written by the chairman emeritus of the Times, who had worked for the president.8 In May, the presidential spokesperson released a new set of diagrams further elaborating on the list of alleged conspirators in the plot.9

To combat the impact of disinformation, a number of fact-checking initiatives were launched during the coverage period. For example, in hopes of countering disinformation in the run-up to the 2019 midterm elections, a group of media and academic professionals initiated Tsek.ph in February 2019 to "provide the public with verified information, by rating news and social media posts based on their veracity, falsity, and completeness."10

Social media platforms have also attempted to respond to the increasing levels of online disinformation in the country.11 Facebook, for example, removed 95 pages and 39 accounts, reaching 4.8 million users, for violating its policies in October 2018.12 The pages and accounts shared a range of entertainment and political content, including some pro-Duterte content.13 In March 2019, 200 Facebook accounts linked to Duterte’s former social media strategist were also taken down for "coordinated and inauthentic behavior."14

Authorities have indicated that the planned GSN will be used to fight disinformation, raising concerns that it could be used as a government mouthpiece (see A1).15

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 23

Some economic and regulatory constraints have impacted the ability to publish content online. In January 2018, Rappler—which had been critical of Duterte and his violent war on drugs, and had suggested that he had “weaponized” social media to discredit his political opponents— was ordered closed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for violating a legal provision mandating Filipino ownership and control of mass media. The SEC based its ruling on depository receipts issued by Rappler Holdings to the Omidyar Network Fund LLC, a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, a US citizen.1 It was the first time that the SEC has invoked the rule to order the closure of a Philippine media company. The move came after Duterte had called for an investigation into the outlet’s ownership in 2017, and had repeatedly called its coverage fake news.2 Following the closure order, the accreditation of Rappler's reporter at the presidential palace was revoked in February 2019, and the reporter was banned from all official presidential events.3 The outlet remains in operation while awaiting a ruling from the Court of Appeals on a petition contesting the closure.4 Rappler, its executives, and its staff continue to face other administrative proceedings and court cases that could significantly hinder its ability to publish content online.5

The Open Access in Data Transmission Act was approved by the House of Representatives during the previous government.6 Following the election, it was refiled by the newly elected Senate in July 2019.7 The bill calls on providers of data transmission services to treat all traffic equally and without discrimination, restriction, or interference; protects the rights of users of data transmission services; and gives additional powers to the NTC.8

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 34

Online platforms are regularly used to discuss politics, especially around elections. Generally, the Philippine blogosphere is rich and thriving.

However, a number of troubling developments threaten the diversity of the online information landscape, including the increase in disinformation, the impact of hyperpartisan content, continued harassment against independent outlets and journalists, online self-censorship, and DDoS attacks against alternative media outlets (see B4, B5, and C8).

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 66

Digital activism in the Philippines has had a significant impact in the past, making national and international headlines and at times prompting positive action from the government. Mobilization tools and websites are freely available for users.

The use of hashtags on social media is popular, both as a way to draw attention to individual events and as a means of participating in broader social movements. After the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) arrested Maria Ressa in February 2019 following a libel complaint, the hashtags #HoldTheLine and #DefendPressFreedom were employed in support of Ressa, Rappler, and freedom of expression.

Citizens also frequently employ online petitions to call for action on matters relevant to the public. For example, a petition was launched in March 2019 demanding an apology from broadcaster Erwin Tulfo after he verbally berated and threatened Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Rolando Bautista for declining to be interviewed live by Tulfo. The campaign gathered more than 4,000 signatures, and Tulfo subsequently apologized.1

C Violations of User Rights

Lawmakers have revisited a draft law criminalizing false or misleading information shared online, along with amendments to the Human Security Act that would expand surveillance powers. More journalists and ordinary users were charged with libel for online content during the coverage period. Alternative media outlets were subjected to technical attacks, while progovernment commentators continued intimidating those critical of the authorities.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 36

The Bill of Rights of the 1987 constitution protects freedom of speech and expression, as well as press freedom, although these rights are not always upheld in practice. Under the Duterte administration, judicial independence has deteriorated.1

A number of bills that would better protect users’ rights were pending at the end of the coverage period. A measure filed at the House of Representatives in late 2017 sought to repeal libel provisions in the Cybercrime Prevention Act and the Electronic Commerce Act.2 The Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom was refiled as a stand-alone measure, after the original was incorporated into an ICT law, and pending review in Congress over the coverage period. However, the newly elected Congress in May has yet to refile the bill.

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 24

Some laws undermine the protections granted by the constitution. Users can face criminal charges for online activity under the libel law, which the Supreme Court upheld in 2014. Section 4c (4) of the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act classifies libel as a cybercrime. Section 6 prescribes prison terms of up to eight years for online libel,1 which is almost double the maximum penalty for the offense when it is perpetrated offline.2

In June 2019, after the coverage period, the government introduced the Anti-False Content Act, which would criminalize those who “know” or have “a reasonable belief” that they are sharing information that is false or misleading, use a “fictitious” account to do so, or “offering or providing one’s service” to spread such information.3 Authors of false or misleading content would face up to six years in prison and fines, while financing the spread of such content would result in up to 20 years in prison and significant fines. This latest effort to criminalize false information online follows a similar bill introduced in June 2017 that expired with the May election.4

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 36

Journalists and ordinary users continued to face criminal and civil penalties for their online activities, most often under libel laws, a trend that has deepened since Duterte took power in 2016.

A number of libel cases have targeted Rappler.1 In February 2019, the Regional Trial Court issued an arrest order for Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. on charges of cyber libel under the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act.2 The charges stem from a complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng against the outlet in late 2017, over a 2012 story by Santos suggesting Keng’s involvement in murder, human trafficking, and drug smuggling.3 According to a lawyer from the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance, since the Cybercrime Prevention Act was passed after the story’s publication, the law should not apply to Rappler and its story about Keng. The NBI, however, claims that the article falls under the theory of “continuous publication,” where it can be assumed that Keng saw the story only after the law was passed.4 As of July 2019, the trial against Ressa and Santos was ongoing.5

In addition to the cases against Rappler and its employees, politicians have filed online libel cases against journalists, bloggers, and ordinary users. In February 2019, then Quezon City Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte filed libel and cyber libel complaints against Saksi Ngayon reporter Joel Amongo for an article accusing Belmonte of corruption.6 In July 2018, blogger Eduardo “Cocoy” Dayao was charged with cyber libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act after a complaint was filed by Senate President Vicente Sotto. The complaint came after Dayao posted an article that criticized seven senators for not signing a resolution calling for the government to end the killing of minors.7 The case against Dayao was ongoing at the end of the coverage period.

Senator Antonio Trillanes, a vocal critic of Duterte, Trillanes filed a libel complaint against Duterte supporter and blogger RJ Nieto for posting "false and derogatory" statements on his Facebook account in 2017, which accused Trillanes of being a drug dealer.8 In July 2018, Nieto was indicted in the case.9 The next hearing is set for December 2019.10

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 44

There are no restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption in the Philippines. The government does not require user registration for internet and mobile access, and prepaid services are widely available, even in small neighborhood stores. However, during the coverage period, there were legislative initiatives in both houses of Congress aimed at preventing mobile phone–aided terrorism and criminal activities that seek SIM card registration systems.1 The Senate bill called for a limit on the number of prepaid SIM cards an individual can register in the system, and would require registered owners of SIM cards to be at least 15 years of age.2 Under the new Congress, the bills have yet to be refiled.

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 36

Despite constitutional protections to ensure the privacy of communications, surveillance is a growing concern in the Philippines.

Recent leaked documents suggested the government’s intentions to procure hardware and software for communications surveillance.1 In February 2018, reporting revealed that the British government sold high-tech spying equipment worth £150,000 ($190,000) to the Philippines, including IMSI-Catchers, which are used to listen to telephone conversations, and surveillance tools to monitor internet activity.2 In 2014, the Philippine government reportedly acquired radio frequency test equipment (RFTE) from an electronic surveillance company based in Germany.3 The Department of National Defense claimed that there was nothing unusual about the acquisition of RFTE, which officials described as necessary to protect national security.

Concerns about surveillance grew when Durterte admitted to wiretapping politicians allegedly involved in the drug trade during a visit to Marawi in 2017.4 Duterte implied that the government possessed wiretapping or interception capabilities again in February 2018, when he said he knew in advance that the International Criminal Court would undertake an initial review of allegations that he committed crimes against humanity while conducting the brutal war on drugs.5 Human rights groups and those opposed to the war on drugs, such as Catholic priests, have suspected that their communications are vulnerable to government surveillance.6

The Human Security Act of 2007 allows for law enforcement to “listen to, intercept and record, with the use of any mode, form, kind or type of electronic or other surveillance equipment or intercepting and tracking devices,” those who are charged with or suspected of terrorism.7 Under the act, law enforcement officials must obtain a court order to carry out such surveillance activities.8 However, the law includes a broad definition of terrorism and critics argue that it is susceptible to abuse.9 Efforts to amend the act and expand surveillance continue. Changes to the act that would broaden surveillance powers were filed in July 2019.10 If passed, the proposal would allow law enforcement to conduct surveillance for a longer period, among other provisions.

Over the coverage period, authorities increased their capacity to monitor social media platforms. In January 2019, the DICT contracted with the local company Integrated Computer Systems Incorporated and the Israeli-American company Verint Systems Ltd. for the department’s new Cybersecurity Management System, which will include a social media monitoring component. Monitoring will be conducted in “near real time” to identify misinformation and other threats, including during election periods.11 Similarly, the Armed Forces of the Philippines created a social media monitoring cell in October 2018, receiving training from the US army on how to monitor platforms to “counter misinformation by violent extremism organizations.”12

In November 2018, the Department of the Interior and Local Government contracted with the China International Telecommunication Construction Corporation to implement the Safe Philippines project and install 12,000 surveillance cameras in the Manila metropolitan area and Davao.13 Huawei would have provided technology to support the project, as well. In January 2019, Senator Ralph Recto filed a resolution calling for a probe of the project over concerns about Chinese companies’ alleged espionage and hacking.14 In February 2019, lawmakers declined to provide the necessary funding to the project—$400 million—due to these concerns.15 However, Duterte later vetoed the lawmakers’ decision to block the funding in May 2019 and placed the project under “conditional implementation.”16

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 46

In general, technology companies are not required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users, although there are some data retention requirements.

In 2015, the government issued rules under the Cybercrime Prevention Act, clarifying some sections of the law that pertain to surveillance. Under its provisions, ISPs must collect and preserve data for up to six months on request. Law enforcement authorities tasked with investigating cybercrime—the NBI and the Philippine National Police cybercrime unit—require a court order to access computer data.1

The Data Privacy Act of 2012 established parameters for the collection of personal financial information, as well as an independent privacy regulator.2 Other laws with implications for user privacy include the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009, which explicitly states that it does not “require an ISP to engage in the monitoring of any user,”3 though it does require them to “obtain” and “preserve” evidence of violations, and threatens to revoke the licenses of noncompliant ISPs. The law also authorizes local government units to oversee and regulate commercial establishments that provide internet services.

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 35

Journalists and rights activists, especially women, have been targets of increasing online intimidation and harassment in recent years.1

Independent and critical online outlets and journalists are subjected to sustained harassment by both progovernment social media accounts and authorities. Days after Ressa was arrested in February 2019, two supporters of the president filmed themselves on Facebook Live sneaking into Rappler’s office and unfurling a sign that condemned the outlet for allegedly destroying the Philippines’ reputation. The video was widely shared by Duterte supporters as well as groups supporting government-friendly senatorial candidates. Some viewers of the video also posted disturbing comments, including calls for the Rappler office to be bombed and for Ressa to be sexually assaulted.2 Attacks against the fact-checking outlet Vera Files escalated after it partnered with Facebook in its fact-checking project in April 2018.3

Those criticizing Duterte’s war on drugs have also faced harassment and intimidation. In February 2019, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Caloocan, an outspoken critic of the drug war and its abuses, reportedly received text messages that he “was next in line for execution.”4

In June 2019, after the coverage period, Margarita “Gingging” Valle, a journalist for the online news outlet Davao Today, was arrested on charges that included murder. Valle was not allowed to contact a lawyer or her family for eight hours and kept in detention for twelve hours. Police then released her and claimed that the arrest was a case of “mistaken identity.”5

Violence against journalists and activists is a significant problem in the Philippines, although not directly in relation to their online activity. As of early 2019, CPJ reported that 80 Philippine journalists had been killed in relation to their work—most covering political issues like corruption—since 1992.6 Attackers generally enjoy impunity.

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 13

Technical attacks targeting media groups continued during the coverage period, with at least 16 cases of DDoS attacks against alternative news outlets reported in recent years.1 Beginning in December 2018, the alternative media outlets Bulatlat, Kodao Productions, Pinoy Weekly, and Altermidya reported experiencing a series of DDoS attacks.2 In January 2019, Bulatlat was targeted again by DDoS attacks, following the publication of a report criticizing the government’s efforts to lower the age of criminal liability, as well as a report on the release of a peace consultant with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) from prison.3

In the beginning of 2019, the websites of Manila Today and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines were also subjected to similar attacks. In a joint editorial on Bulatlat’s website, the outlets blamed the government for the attacks.4 In March 2019, four media groups—Alipato Media Center, Kodao Productions, Altemidya, and Pinoy Media Center—filed a case before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court against two companies who they believe were responsible for the attacks.5

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    No
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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