Senate starts plenary debates on FOI bill
MANILA, Philippines – The Senate has begun plenary debates on the proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) that would give the public access to government records.
Senator Grace Poe, head of the committee on public information, defended the bill when the chamber started its debates on the floor Tuesday.
Among the senators who interpellated Poe Tuesday were Majority Floor Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, Senator Juan Edgardo Angara and Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III.
But it was Sotto, an opposition member, who raised concerns over the bill’s apparent lack of safeguards on information that could be accessed in the websites.
Under the bill, all government agencies are mandated to upload on their websites their annual budget, itemized monthly collections and disbursement, summary of income and expenditures; items to bid, bid results; procurement contract; construction or concession agreements or contract, among others.
Sotto warned however that accessing information online might be prone to abuse.
“At the outset, I feel this is a very laudable bill. As a matter of fact in the 15th Congress, we passed it, we approved it. But there are new developments and some insights that we’d like to clarify,” he said.
While the bill provides a 15-day period for a government agency to reply to a request for information, Sotto noted that online access did not provide any time frame.
Unlike an individual requesting information in person, he said, the proposed measure also allows anyone to access information uploaded online without even knowing his or her identity.
“If it’s online, it should be accessible outright, immediately. To who?” Sotto asked Poe.
“To anybody requesting information…it will be instantaneous. But of course if it’s not automatically uploaded in the website then that agency, government’s office will have 15 days (to reply to the request),” Poe answered.
“That’s my problem, Mr. President. Do we have safeguards for this because firstname.lastname@example.org can access your website and just try to get information,” Sotto said.
“Pag personal information desk, maa-identify mo. Pag online, hindi mo maa-identify kung hacker yan, namemerhuwesyo yan, kung blackmailer yan…” he added.
But Poe said government agencies should make sure that their websites have security measures in place against hacking.
There was also a suggestion, she said that those who can obtain information from government offices should be a taxpayer and a citizen of the Philippines.
“But when we think about information, and even in other countries that have FOI, citizenship is not a requirement because information is so difficult also to obtain so that’s why we’ve been prudent in enumerating the actual exemption to make sure that we have a safeguard in place when it comes to national security issues …” Poe said.
Nevertheless, she said her committee would be open to any suggestion to ensure that online access to information would not be abused.
Deliberations were suspended Tuesday and resumed this Wednesday.
Sotto predicted the passage of the bill early next year.
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