PH on steep drop in terms of ‘internet freedoms’
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines has suffered the sharpest decline among Asia-Pacific countries in terms of “internet freedoms,” which watchdogs have largely attributed to the enactment of anti-terrorism and SIM card registration laws, according to a new study that tracks the impact of digital technology regulation on people’s safety and privacy.
The country is categorized as “partly free” in the report titled “Freedom on the Net 2023” by Freedom House, a US-based organization supporting human rights advocates and programs.
According to the report, the Philippines scored 61 out of 100, down four points from its 2022 rating, based on three categories: obstacles to access (16/25), limits on content (23/35), and violation of user’s rights (22/40).
Released on Oct. 5, this year’s report assessed the level of internet freedom in 70 countries accounting for 89 percent of the world’s internet users. The study was conducted from June 2022 to May 2023.
Among others, it found that global internet freedoms have declined for the 13th consecutive year, with the biggest drops occurring in Iran (−5), Philippines (−4), Belarus (−3), Costa Rica (−3) and Nicaragua (−3).
In the Philippines’ case, Freedom House noted how President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. continued policies put in place by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, that were criticized for being tools of overreach.
SIM card law
For one, it said, Marcos signed a law that was previously vetoed by Duterte requiring mobile phone users to register their SIM cards under their real names, or face deactivation.
Freedom House said this “undermined anonymous communication in what remains a dangerous environment for journalists and activists.”
Under that law, SIM card owners are required to register with their service providers within six months to avoid deactivation, and users who purchase new cards will need to provide their personal information and a valid photo identification document at the point of sale.
The law imposes fines for failing to register SIM cards, as well as criminal penalties of up to two years in prison for providing false information or fraudulent identification documents during registration, and up to six years for SIM card “spoofing,” or manipulation to commit fraud.
Marcos also retained a government order issued under Duterte that restricted 27 websites, including those of several news outlets known for critical reporting, using the anti-terrorism law as a basis.
The blocking order, signed by then National Security Council chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr., is currently being challenged in court by the media site Bulatlat.
Also, between June 30, 2022, to April 30, 2023, at least 10 cases of libel and cyberlibel were filed against media workers.
One case ended in the conviction of Baguio-based journalist Frank Cimatu, who was sentenced to five years in prison over a 2017 Facebook post accusing former Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol of corruption.
Surveillance is also a growing concern in the Philippines, Freedom House said, noting the increase in “budget allocations for intelligence funds and funds for surveillance activities in civilian government agencies.”
AI use for misinformation
On a global scale, Freedom House also sounded the alarm on the rise of generative artificial intelligence (AI), which it said “threatens to supercharge online disinformation campaigns.”
Over the past year, the report said, the technology was used to generate false images, text, and audio in at least 16 countries to distort information on political or social issues.
For example, during a conflict in Pakistan between former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military-backed establishment, Khan shared an AI-generated video to depict a woman fearlessly facing riot police—supposedly to push a narrative that the women of Pakistan were standing by him, not the military.
AI-manipulated content was also used to smear electoral opponents in the United States, the report added. Accounts affiliated with the campaigns of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential election, shared videos with AI-generated content to undermine each other’s candidacy.
This growing use of AI in false and misleading information, Freedom House said, “is exacerbating the challenge of the so-called liar’s dividend, in which widespread wariness of falsehoods on a given topic can muddy the waters to the extent that people disbelieve true statements.”
“Political actors have labeled reliable reporting as AI-enabled fakery, or spread manipulated content to sow doubt about very similar genuine content,” it said. “The dangers of AI-assisted disinformation campaigns will skyrocket as malicious actors develop additional ways to bypass safeguards and exploit open-source models, and as other companies release competing applications with fewer protections in place.”
Call for responsibility
Freedom House challenged the governments to develop a road map for this new era of AI as its benefits and harms become more apparent.
Companies that create or deploy AI systems, it added, should “cultivate an understanding of previous efforts to strengthen platform responsibility.”
“Given the private sector’s natural inclination to focus on profit generation, its AI products require supervision by an informed public, a global group of civil society organizations, and empowered regulators,” the report said.