ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Philippines’s Mandatory SIM Card Registration Threatens Privacy and Free Speech

Opponents claim that the new law could become “a potent tool for mass surveillance and authoritarianism.”

Philippines’s Mandatory SIM Card Registration Threatens Privacy and Free Speech
Credit: Depositphotos

The Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) Card Registration Act, ratified recently by the Philippine House of Representatives and the Senate, is now awaiting the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte amid criticisms that it could be used to undermine the privacy and civil liberties of citizens.

If passed into law, the Act will require the registration of SIM cards prior to their use and activation. The country has more than 120 million total mobile subscribers. Around 95 percent of them use prepaid SIM cards.

The measure will also mandate social media companies to register the real names and phone numbers of individuals creating accounts on their platforms.

Legislators said the Act will “deter the proliferation of SIM card, internet or electronic communication-aided crimes.” In 2020 alone, the police recorded 6,110 cybercrime offenses such as online scams, computer-related identity theft, and phishing. Private telecommunication companies have monitored a higher number of cybercrimes. Globe Telecom, for example, has blocked a total of 1.15 billion scam and spam messages, around 7,000 mobile numbers linked to scammers, and 2,000 unofficial social media accounts and phishing sites in 2021.

Senator Win Gatchalian, one of the authors of the Act, is confident that it will boost business confidence because authorities have an additional legal tool against online fraudsters who use unregistered mobile numbers. “This is a very timely development considering that there has been an unprecedented rise in e-commerce and digital services and this would help promote consumer and business confidence as there will now be a layer of protection against fraudsters,” he said.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Legislators also invoked the same argument when Congress passed the Anti-Cybercrime Act in 2012.

But some experts have pointed out that it is not a guarantee that SIM card registration will deter crimes based on the experience of other countries. The Act also cannot penalize existing accounts with fictitious names and those created in other countries.

Opposition Senator Franklin Drilon said anonymity has made the internet an unsafe space for women and children. “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.

Drilon, a veteran lawmaker and lawyer, should be aware that the Act has instantly criminalized trolling, hate speech, and the spread of disinformation even if these actions are not sufficiently defined in the proposed law. Trolling is now listed in the same category of crimes such as bank fraud, text scams, and terrorism.

It is unfortunate that legislators are equating anonymity with some nefarious acts instead of acknowledging that this has also allowed many individuals to express themselves without fear of reprisal.

An online petition against the Act explained how mandatory registration will affect and disrupt many lives. “It robs us of the additional security that anonymity gives us, especially for celebrities, public figures, influencers, activists, human rights defenders, victims of domestic abuse and violence against women and children, and even individuals who simply wish to compartmentalize their personal lives from the rest of their activities.”

The Act will make it more difficult for investigative journalists to perform their work. Whistleblowers might be at risk especially if they divulge information involving authorities. Children in online gaming communities might face threats if they are required to share their personal information. Transgender people are right in expressing concern about how this Act will force them to adopt their “dead name” to avoid imprisonment.

Legislators who often extol the virtues of heroes should remember that the founders of the Philippine Republic used pen names and aliases when they challenged the colonial regime. It is ironic that adopting the same tactics today on the internet and when using mobile phones could soon be considered a crime.

The Act is expected to be signed into law before the end of Duterte’s term in June. It is also under the Duterte presidency when the amended Anti-Terrorism Act was passed, despite massive protests against this legislation. In an online petition, concerned citizens and groups are worried that both the SIM Card Registration Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act will be used to further erode the country’s shrinking civic space for freedom of expression.

“In the wrong hands, it could serve as a potent tool for mass surveillance and authoritarianism, especially when coupled with other draconian measures introduced in recent years, such as the controversial Anti-Terror Law.”