'Real name' social media registration seen to risk free speech, privacy and identity

Angelica Y. Yang - Philstar.com
'Real name' social media registration seen to risk free speech, privacy and identity
The proposed "SIM Card Registration Act", already ratified by Congress and waiting for President Rodrigo Duterte, has a provision stating that "all social media account providers shall require [the] real name and phone number [of a user] upon creation of account."
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MANILA, Philippines (Updated 5:58 p.m.) — A measure that may soon require social media users to disclose their real names may be used to suppress freedom of expression and, for sectors like the LGBTQ+, ownership of one's identity.

The proposed "SIM Card Registration Act", already ratified by Congress and waiting for President Rodrigo Duterte, has a provision stating that "all social media account providers shall require [the] real name and phone number [of a user] upon creation of account."

Under the measure, those who use "fictitious identities" to register for social media accounts or SIM cards could face prison time of no less than six years or a fine of up to P200,000, or both.

The bill has raised issues on privacy and security among cybersecurity and privacy experts. 

Now up for President Rodrigo Duterte's signature, the measure could also lapse into law if he does not veto it. 

An official of the National Privacy Commission told Philstar.com last week that the provision on social media account registration was not in the original bills filed and deliberated on at the House and the Senate.

"Should the SIM Card Registration Act be passed, many of the victories the LGBTQ+ community has fought for in terms of visibility and equality would be pushed back, and we would be curtailing people's rights to healthy self-expression," Bahaghari chairwoman Rey Valmores-Salinas told Philstar.com over email.

She explained that many transgender people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community choose to carry lived names, which are distinct from their legal names or "dead names." Many of them see this as an important step in their journey towards self-expression. 

"Tagging transgender people's lived names which they might use in social media and elsewhere as fictitious identities, especially when many of us either do not have the means to change our legal name or would be placed in danger should we publicly come out, would effectively force transgender people to adopt their dead name to avoid imprisonment," Valmores-Salinas said. 

Carlos Nazareno, a cybersecurity advocate and a member of internet and ICT rights advocacy group Democracy.Net.PH, said it is common for LGBTQ+ members and women to adopt usernames that do not reflect their legal names to avoid online harassment.

"It's not unusual for women or LGBTQ+ people to write under alternate names so that they get treated with respect on the internet," he told Philstar.com over a Viber call. 

According to him, removing the curtain of anonymity afforded by aliases will not solve the problem of uncivil behavior online.

"A certain amount of netizens prefer to write under aliases so that they don't receive backlash from trolls...[But] not all trolls hide under fictitious names. Lots of them go under their real names and they spew all of these vile and vicious language and harassment on other individuals so the removal of anonymity is no guarantee of [removing] uncivil behavior on the internet," Nazareno said.

RELATED: Suits by 'sensitive' senators threaten free speech 

'We're not collateral damage'

Pierre Tito Galla, the co-founder and co-convenor of Democracy.Net.PH, said that the government should instead be "diligently" going after those who are abusing their privileges.

"The Constitution is supposed to guarantee us, the public, the right to be left alone. If there are any individuals who are abusing their privileges through anonymity, the government should be pursuing these individuals through legitimate, diligent, and tenacious law enforcement work," he told Philstar.com on Messenger.

"The government should not consider the rest of us as acceptable collateral damage when pursuing these individuals. As the saying goes, you shouldn't burn the house down to get rid of a single flea," he added.

Nazareno cited the example of Mexico which passed its own SIM card registration act in 2009 but repealed it three years later when the law was not able to curb kidnapping incidents and mobile phone-related thefts.

"With regards to this, can the government and private entities on which the SIM card registration database is being stored, guarantee that the registry will not get leaked? That's what happened in Mexico. Their SIM card registry got leaked and was sold on the black market. If that happens, there is no turning back," he said.

Bahaghari's Valmores-Salinas is very certain that the SIM Card Registration Act will be used alongside the Anti-Terrorism Act, which will further restrict the democratic space.

She said the burden of fighting disinformation, trolling and crime falls on social media corporations to whom users submit their sensitive data. 

"The burden should not be on individual citizens in the form of surrendering our personal information to public telecommunication entities (PTEs) to combat disinformation, trolling, and crime," she said.

She said social media platforms have the bigger responsibility "to fight the spread of fake news, oppose harassment and abuse such as red-tagging and terror-tagging, and institute better cybersecurity measures to protect [their] users."

RELATED: DOJ Cybercrime: We take online threats, whether vs politicians or ordinary citizens, seriously

Telco vows to help draft law's IRR

If passed into law, consumers must first fill up an electronic registration form with their personal information, which may include their full names, birth dates, addresses and pictures of their valid government I.Ds, before purchasing and activating a SIM card. 

PTEs will collect these registration forms and keep them on record in a database which will serve as a "SIM card register." The register can only be used by the entities to process, activate or deactivate subscriptions. 

"We have always maintained our stance that the SIM card registration bill will help quash the proliferation of fraudulent spam messages, smishing cases and fraud, and will boost telecom security efforts to keep subscribers safe. It will also spur ecommerce adoption and growth," Smart Communications Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Roy Ibay said in a statement last week. 

Speaking to Philstar.com, Ibay reiterated the firm's commitment in helping out in drafting the SIM Card Registration Act's implementing rules and regulations (IRR).

"As stated earlier, we will participate and endeavor to help craft an IRR that will ensure the SRA's effective administration and safeguard data privacy and information security measures of our customers," he said on Monday. 

Froilan Castelo, the general counsel of Globe Telecom, said the firm is for the Sim Card Registration Act, believing that the legislation will support the government's fight against fraud, terrorism and other crimes.

"Through this bill, we hope to first strengthen government and private sector cooperation towards protecting mobile phone users against text scams and crimes perpetrated in anonymity," he said in a briefing with reporters on February 10.

Philstar.com has reached out to DITO Telecommunity for its insights on the issue, but it has not yet replied as of this post.

'A safe space for children'

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, one of the bill's authors, argued that the provision on requiring the disclosure of real names and phone numbers to social media providers, will help in creating a safe environment for netizens, especially children. 

"Look at your friends or relatives, maybe a co-worker or classmates, who are victims of trolling and fake accounts. This provision is for them, because trolling, online harassment and fake news happen because the environment today allows it," he said in a statement posted on the Senate website on Monday. 

"Online bullies hide behind anonymity. Trolls thrive in anonymity. Ask the parents of the kids bullied online before you oppose the measure. All we want here is to address the anonymity in the internet and social media and make a safe cyberspace for our people," he added. 

The senator claimed that anonymity on the internet and social media has allowed the proliferation of trolls and fake news. 

Drilon also argued against the privacy concerns raised by several groups who were against the bill.

He explained that the bill has a confidentiality clause which says that "any information obtained in the registration process described under the act cannot be disclosed to any person."

Exceptions to this would be disclosures obligated by the Data Privacy Act or in compliance with a court order, legal process, or other government regulatory, or enforceable administrative request for information.

RELATED: PNP reminded: Don't invade privacy when monitoring social media for quarantine enforcement



Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comments by Froilan Castelo, the general counsel of Globe Telecom.

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