Ray of Light: Successful Joint Advocacy Led to Veto on Philippines SIM Card Registration Act
Written by Wikimedia Foundation’s Rachel Arinii Judhistari (Rjudhistari), Lead Public Policy Specialist for Asia
Mobile communications are occupying a more central role in societies across the world, with connectivity increasing, and coverage and usage gaps diminishing worldwide. This is also the case in the East Asian and Pacific region, including the Philippines — which has a population of more than 109 million people, and counted in 2021 over 156 million mobile subscriptions, with mobile internet user penetration reaching 68%. Over recent years, the number of mobile subscribers has significantly increased, leading to a surge in accessing and browsing the internet via mobile devices. Mobile internet connectivity opens opportunities for urban and rural communities to participate in the creation of free knowledge, the digital economy, and education. However, for individuals to fully participate in digital society, they need privacy protections.
Mandatory SIM Card Registration Laws Threaten Privacy
The House of Representatives in the Philippines, in previous years, has made considerable and repeated efforts toward enacting a mandatory Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card registration system. While the intent and purpose of such bills — namely, to eliminate illegal activities carried out via mobile devices — is noble, their negative effects on privacy are concerning The most recent attempt at passing such an Act, the consolidated Senate Bill №2395 and House Bill №5793, would have mandated all public telecommunications entities to require the registration of SIM cards as a prerequisite to their sale and activation.
Notably, the legislation would have also required internet users to use personal identification — for instance, national ID numbers and telephone numbers — to register on social media. This would have effectively criminalized anonymity and pseudonymity online, not only prohibiting the usage of fictitious identities when registering accounts, but also meting out the draconian punishment of a minimum of 6 years in prison and/or a fine of up to ₱200,000 — approximately US$3,500 in 2022 — for those who did so. Furthermore, the Act would have violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression as well as personal privacy, and endangered the safety of Filipino citizens — especially women, children, the LGBTQ+ community, human rights defenders, journalists, and the political opposition.
The Wikimedia Foundation, alongside telecommunications companies, consumer groups, and human rights organizations, opposed the Act and called for it to be vetoed. Privacy is a necessary condition for people to read or contribute to Wikimedia projects without fear of surveillance or reprisal.
The Importance of Anonymity and Pseudonymity for Online Platforms
The Wikimedia Foundation was concerned not only about the potential impact that the Act could have on the safety and privacy of Wikimedians in the Philippines, but also on civil society as a whole, including particular groups such as women and the LGBTQ+ community. Filipino civil society warned how limitations on privacy and anonymity would negatively impact survivors of violence, since anonymity allows survivors to protect themselves from being contacted by their abusers. Furthermore, many users, especially women and the LGBTQ+ community, often choose to use gender-neutral aliases on social media instead of their legal birth names in order to protect themselves from online bullying, harassment, and stalking. The safety that is provided by online anonymity can help everyone, including Wikimedians, exercise their freedom of expression as well as advocate for themselves and others without fear of retaliation, especially when discussing sensitive topics.
Seizing on the fact that similar bills in countries such as Mexico, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan have demonstrably failed to reach their goals, Filipino civil society mobilized in opposition to the draft regulation, eventually disposing former president Rodrigo Duterte to veto the proposed SIM Card Registration Act in an unprecedented move during April 2022. Given the political landscape and chilling effect of the conviction of Noble Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa for cyber libel as well as the official shutdown of the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, the former president’s veto was unexpected.
It is a fragile win and, going forward, the Philippine government’s approach to addressing illegal activities online needs to strike a balance that facilitates Filipinos’ full participation in the internet while ensuring their safety and the protection of their privacy. In this spirit, we call upon the Senate and House of Representatives of the Philippines to urgently enact strong consumer privacy protections regulations, commit to protecting the confidentiality of personal data and communications, and support the deployment and use of end-to-end encrypted technologies.