Holding online platforms liable ‘quick solution’ vs disinformation, Senate panel told
MANILA, Philippines — Nobel Peace Prize awardee and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa told a Senate panel that creating a law that would hold accountable online platforms that continue to allow the proliferation of false information would be a “quick solution” to defeat disinformation.
During Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate constitutional amendments committee, Ressa stressed the need to eradicate disinformation in order to have an “integrity of elections” this year.
The Senate panel is reviewing the country’s criminal laws to keep pace with the rise of social media use in the Philippines.
“If we don’t have an integrity of facts, we will not have integrity of elections. If you look at every study of fascism globally, they first tear down the facts,” Ressa said.
“Facebook is now the world’s largest distributor of news and yet studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than the really boring facts. So the reality is, the platforms that deliver the facts to you are biased against facts, they are biased against journalists. And they are, by design, dividing us and radicalizing us,” she added.
The Nobel laureate said one of the faster ways to defeat disinformation is to create a law that would penalize technology and social media companies that continue to allow disinformation and misinformation to proliferate on their platforms.
“In our country, what can we do? The quick solution would be to actually hold the platforms accountable for what they spread, what they allow to spread. And when you do that, I bet you that you would automatically see a shrinking of information operations,” Ressa said.
During the hearing, Ressa said the “infodemic” online has amplified the narratives of populist regimes, which led to a further divide among the Filipino public.
“So where are you going to intervene? Don’t intervene in the content because you can actually be accused of censorship,” she, however, stressed.
“But if you go to the algorithms of amplification… because everyone can say what they think. But what your neighbor said never reaches broadcast scale until today, because there have been no guardrails on the distribution of lies,” she added.
Senator Francis Pangilinan, who chairs the Senate committee, said the unprecedented scale, speed, and scope of technology used in disinformation “distorts the truth that allows people to make informed decisions.”
“’Infodemic’ threatens the very fiber of our decency as a people…We must have laws that are up-to-date, responsive to the needs of the times, foolproof as best as it can be against the ingenious minds of criminals ika’ nga (so to speak),” the senator said.
On the part of Facebook, its law enforcement outreach manager, Robert Abrams, said the social media giant has “constant interaction with appropriate parties within the government” in cracking down on cybercrimes.
“I’m proud to say that we’re probably one of the few tech companies that will testify openly in the Senate, that we want better access for Filipino authorities to address human trafficking and child exploitation,” Abrams told the panel.
“But we also don’t want to be the arbiters of truth. That’s not our role in society,” he, however, said.
He noted that is the reason why the company employs third-party fact-checkers.
“When it comes to hate speech…We don’t allow it and quite frankly, the algorithm there’s nothing inherently evil about the sort of same algorithms that help hundreds of thousands of small businesses in the Philippines survive the pandemic,” he added.
“These are the same algorithms that help on machine learning and move terror-related content and the use of the algorithms that help keep children safe,” he further said.
Nevertheless, Abrams recognized the need for improvement.
“Which is why teams like mine exist, and our public policy team exists for safety policy to give your services so we can learn better in the cultural context in which we’re operating.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice (DOJ) conveyed its support for the action being undertaken by the Senate panel “to update the present laws to adapt to the current cybercrime landscape.”
But lawyer Antoni Pauline Pascual, state counsel from the DOJ’s Office of Cybercrime, said the country’s existing cybercrime law “is inclusive enough to cover manners by which cybercrimes are committed and broad enough to apply to cybercrimes that may be committed in the future.”
“At any rate, it is respectfully recommended that the focus should be on the strengthening of the enforcement actions and compelling compliance of internet service providers with their obligations under the law,” Pascual said.
Pangilinan then asked if imposing administrative fines against social media platforms that “have allowed defamatory” content, as well as cyber-related crimes, could also be an option.
Pascual answered in the affirmative but noted that fines should be hefty enough for it to be effective.