The Congress’ ‘Third House’: What Actually Happened to the Cybercrime Bill

Netizens are angry about the enactment of RA 10175, more popularly known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (read full text here) due to several provisions including the controversial online libel provision (Sec 4c par (4)). Aside from the danger it poses to free speech liberally enjoyed by the online population, the said provision compounds the problem of the already-obsolete libel law. Furthermore, Rep. Tinio of ACT Partylist and Rep. Palatino of the Kabataan Partylist, known critics of the said law, describes the more serious consequences of this law such as the superpower of law enforcement agencies, and issues on due process. Much more were revealed during the round-table discussion held at the UP College of Hall, Sept 19 (for the recordings of the meeting, please click here).

A few days ago, journalist-blogger Raissa Robles reveals that it was actually the self-proclaimed victim of cyberbullying, Tito Sotto who introduced the online libel provision on the final version of the bill. She further notes that this particular provision does not appear on the House and Senate versions of the bill. It was also revealed during the round-table discussion that several other provisions such as the Double Penalty provisions (Sec 6, 7) were not in either versions.  Rep. Tinio added that on the House version, there used to be an exclusionary and destruction provisions which requires ISPs to keep data for only 90 days. In other words, somewhere between the Third Reading of the bills and the signing of it into law, there is a dagdag-bawas that happened.

It turned out that somewhere brings us to the so-called “Third House”: the Bicameral Conference Committee. (Flow chart of Legislative Process is found here.)

According to the Senate website, the Bicameral Conference Committee’s main role is to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a particular bill before a final copy is transmitted to the President. In other words, it is during the Bicameral Conference Committee where a final bill of the copy is made. In actuality however, what happened for the Cybercrime Bills is that the questioned provisions were inserted during the Bicameral Conference Committee– away from the scrutiny of the entire membership of the Congress and to the public. Even Tinio and Palatino attest to the practice where legislators will expedite legislative process since the “Third House” will deal on a contested provision anyway.

This made me curious because this poses another, and a much bigger problem.

If this is what is happening, then the Bicameral Conference Committee wields a great power beyond our scrutiny. Let’s have a quick look on this: How many of us know which people were there in the Bicam Committee? Answer: We don’t know. The public does not know, in general, who these people were: these people who have the power to ignore the provisions proposed by the legislators– which, by the way, are a product of hours of debate, interpellations and meetings. These people are away from scrutiny, and therefore away from public accountability. These people who only meets in a hotel somewhere in the city, where the general public does not know what is happening. Take for example the Cybercrime bill: Was there any debate when Tito Sotto inserted the online libel provision? Who approved the double-plus penal provision (Sec 6)? We do not know the answer.

We can see a bigger problem here right now and this is issue needs to be brought up because it does not only apply on the Cybercrime law. Who knows? Maybe other approved laws have undergone such irregular proceedings. The Bicameral Conference Committee wields a very horrific power which, in theory, they are not entitled to. There is a huge difference between reconciling versions of the bill and stealthily adding or killing provisions on the bill. The latter is the sole job of the House and Senate. I only hope that the Legislature and the Government be more transparent when it comes to passing a legislative measure. I also hope that the Legislature will be transparent enough to reveal to the public what actually happens on any Bicameral Conference Committee hearings.

For now, let’s call on for Congress to reveal who were the members of the Bicameral Conference Committee for Cybercrime Law and let’s ask for explanations on the contested provisions.