The Philippines SIM Card Registration Act and the Veto of President Duterte

Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Jeetendra Vishwakarma*

The Act, mandating compulsory registrations for SIM cards and social media accounts, has been fiercely denounced by national and global human rights organizations. President Duterte vetoed the SIM Card Registration Act on the ground of vagueness and its impact on freedom of expression. We dwell on the reasons behind the veto and the future course of the Act.

On April 15, 2022, outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte stunned the Senate, Human rights organizations, and the public with his veto of the contentious Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card registration Bill. The reason given by the President’s office is that the language of the Bill mandating social media registration is vague and ill-defined, making it susceptible to misuse. The Act, in its current form, can trample the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution of Philippines. As a result of the veto, Congress will have to deliberate on the disapprovals and re-pass the Bill.

The Philippines has registered significant growth in its information technology and communication sector in recent years leading to a boom in the usage of   SIM cards and social media platforms. Under the SIM card registration Bill, all the SIM cards and social media accounts must be registered and verified. The Bill will impact around 157 million mobile subscribers and about 80 million social media users of the Philippines, albeit numbers will not reflect actual figures because of the possibility of multiple accounts.

Various Human rights organizations and NGOs have criticized the Bill on the issue of free speech, privacy, surveillance, and its discriminatory impact on marginalized sections like LGBTQ. This article will analyze the controversial provisions of the acts and how they can entail a threat to privacy and freedom of expression. Further, we will try to discern the reasons behind the veto of President Duterte.

Provisions of the Act and The squabble

The SIM Card Registration Act of the Philippines was passed to promote accountability in the use of SIM cards and social media accounts. It imparts law enforcement additional legal tools to deal with the crimes like trolling, hate speech, defamation, fake news, etc. Noticeably, the provision of social media account registration was not present in the older Senate version of the Act and was a last-minute insertion by Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon.

Section 4 of the Act makes it compulsory for all the Public Telecommunication Entities (PTEs) to obtain registration of the SIM card from the end-user upon its sale and activation. Similarly, all social media account providers like Twitter and Facebook shall require their users’ real names and phone numbers.Under the SIM card registration process,buyer have to provide data relating to date of birth,address,government identity card etc. The provision would lead to sending of sensitive personal data by the users to the companies. As the incidences from the past suggest, tech companies can utilize this colossal compilation of sensitive data in ad-targeting and user profiling. Logistical requirements regarding the registration and verification of SIM cards and social media accounts can also be cumbersome for small-scale players who cannot afford to build and maintain such a system.

Moreover, the requirement of registration of the real name in social media accounts imperils the anonymity of the users. Anonymity allows users to express themselves freely on social media without being threatened by state and private actors. Thus, this provision can harm the freedom of expression, protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the constitution of the Philippines.

As per Section 6 of the Act, the registration information would be forwarded by PTE to a centralized database. Many human rights organizations and cyberexperts have flagged the concern that such big single-point data storage can become a potential target of cyberattacks. Concerns have been expressed about Section 10, too, relating to the disclosure of registration information by PTE and social media. Under this section, service providers have to disclose the registration-related information on the order of “Competent authority” for ascertaining the identity of an individual.According to Human rights groups, this provision enables the authorities to access the data in an unfettered manner without any oversight or safeguard. There is also fear of Governmental abuse of this provision for surveillance on human rights activists and critics who often use social media platforms to express their voices against the government.

The Act also sufferers from the vices of vagueness and ambiguity. The words like deterring the “fake news,” “trolling,” “hate speech,”  and “competent authority” are nowhere defined, giving broad discretion to the authorities. Critiques of the Act have  cited the precedents of similar legislations in other countries like Tanzania, Kenya, and Malawi. The experience of these countries shows that SIM cards or social media registration is minimally successful in their purported objective of preventing crimes. In most of these countries, criminals and other miscreants often found other means to circumvent the law leading to an unfair tradeoff with privacy and anonymity. The concerns of Transgender people are also legitimate, as they will be forced to adapt their long-abandoned name due to the absence of legal transgender recognition in the country.

Fathoming Duterte’s Veto And Future Course Of The Act

President Duterte has vetoed the Bill because of its implications on civil liberty and free speech. Many legislators have accepted the veto as a “parting gift” of Duterte in favor of Filipnos’ freedom and privacy. However, some other, like senate minority leader Franklin M Drilon says that the President sought to protect the state-funded troll armies employed to inflate his support on social media. It seems plausible because the government is one of the beneficiaries of nefarious online activities and often plays a role in weaponizing social media. Notwithstanding the motive of President Duterte behind vetoing the Bill, the law has several drawbacks which require its due consideration before Congress. Congress can still overturn the veto by re-passing the Bill with a 2/3rd majority. However, it provides the human rights groups an opportunity to engage with lawmakers and voice their concerns about the bills. Advocating alternatives to the law like cyber education or digital rights for preventing online crimes can be a more rational approach. The attitude of new Phlippines’ President Marcos Jr. will also be keenly watched considering the huge role played by social media in his victory.

* Jeetendra Vishwakarma is a student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, and a Research Assistant to Prof. Harsh Mahaseth.

Harsh Mahaseth
Harsh Mahaseth
Harsh Mahaseth is an Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean (Academic Affairs) at Jindal Global Law School, and the Assistant Director of the Nehginpao Kipgen Center for Southeast Asian Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, India.