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MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte vetoed on Friday a bill that sought to require social media users to enter their legal identities and phone numbers amid reservations over the scope of state surveillance on digital communication platforms.

Lawmakers approved the bill in February as a measure to address cybercrime and online abuse. Called the Subscriber Identity Module Card Registration Act, it also required all the owners of cellphone SIMs to be registered with operators.

It was widely considered an attempt to contain misinformation ahead of the May 9 general election, as social media has become a major campaigning platform for candidates who are vying for the presidency, vice presidency and thousands of seats in Congress and local governments.

The president’s spokesman Martin M. Andanar said that Duterte appreciated the efforts of lawmakers to address cybercrime, but “certain aspects of state intrusion, or the regulation thereof, have not been duly defined” and may threaten “many constitutionally protected rights.”

“It is incumbent upon the Office of the President to ensure that any statute is consistent with the demands of the Constitution, such as those which guarantee individual privacy and free speech,” Andanar said in a statement.

When the bill was passed by the lower house and senate, one of its authors, Senator Franklin Drilon, said it was a contribution to “fight the anonymity that provides the environment for trolls and other malicious attacks to thrive in the age of social media. ”

The bill prescribed punishments of jail or fines for providing false identity data, but it was not immediately clear from the bill how social media platforms would check if a name or number used to register an account was false.

“If you apply for Twitter or Facebook, it’s all going to be electronic. So, I can have a national ID theoretically and scan it and they won’t be able to tell whether I altered it or not. They’re not experts at identifying whether or not a document that was scanned has been altered,” Stephen Cutler, security expert and former FBI legal attaché to the Philippines, told Arab News.

“I applaud the efforts to identify people, but with social media accounts, I don’t know if that’s going to be practical.”

In addition to practicality issues, privacy also came into the spotlight when the bill was passed.

Grace Mirandilla-Santos, vice president for policy of the Internet Society Philippines Chapter, said that SIM registration could threaten to harm legitimate users’ right to privacy and have a “chilling effect on freedom of expression,” with no real evidence that it would deter criminal activity.

“The bill will essentially penalize the majority for the perceived or anticipated transgression of a few. This harm to privacy can happen either when the government oversteps its boundaries — a possibility given the bill’s provisions allowing subscribers’ information to be accessed by the government via a court order, a regulatory or administrative request or a subpoena by a competent authority — or when the SIM registry is hacked or breached,” Mirandilla-Santos told Arab News.

“Registration will only really be useful in situations where criminals opt to use SIMs registered to their real names — and not stolen ones, or ones fraudulently registered to fake names.”

Duterte’s decision to veto the bill was welcomed by activists.

“We welcome the veto of the SIM card Registration Bill even as we continue to point out state-sponsored attacks on privacy are happening even with the SIM card registration measure,” Renato Reyes, secretary-general of BAYAN, an alliance of left-wing Philippine organizations, said in a statement.

“The SIM card and social media registration are dangerous measures that undermine privacy and create a chilling effect on consumers and social media users. It is a form of state surveillance on the people and does not deter crime.”

With Duterte’s veto, the bill is unlikely to pass before the election.


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