While countries around the world ramp up efforts to regulate social media, the country that has consistently ranked first for social media use — the Philippines — remains surprisingly free of it. Last year, for the sixth consecutive year, Filipinos spent the most time on social media — four hours and 15 minutes per day, with Facebook still the most popular platform. President Rodrigo Duterte’s victory in the 2016 elections was fueled in large part by his robust Facebook campaign, which included a cohort of trolls and social media influencers seeding narratives to help influence the electoral outcome.
That the Philippines became a breeding ground for political disinformation is not surprising, given how much Filipinos spend their waking hours online. More of the same is expected to happen, if not already happening, in the lead-up to the presidential polls in May 2022. There are concerns that candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of the late dictator who imposed martial law in the Philippines from 1972 to 1986, might use social media exploitatively for his political comeback. Since 2018, Facebook has removed fake accounts found by the platform to be linked to both Duterte and Senator Imee Marcos, Bongbong’s sister.
Outside of elections, regulatory clashes between Facebook and government officials continue. In August, a Filipino congressman sought to investigate Facebook for “censoring” him online. This was after Facebook took down his post suggesting that ivermectin could cure Covid-19, in violation of the platform’s Covid-19 misinformation policy. A similar incident happened in May, when a spokesperson for the country’s anti-insurgency task force responsible for baselessly labeling human rights defenders as “terrorists” was temporarily banned from Facebook for repeatedly violating community standards. The spokesperson hinted at holding Facebook liable, while other users urged Facebook to make the ban permanent.
In September, another legislator wrote an open letter to Facebook inviting the company for a “dialogue” on its content policies. This was after the congresswoman allegedly received reports from constituents that posts had been “unjustly and unceremoniously deleted,” despite the absence of anything false or defamatory in the content posted, according to the congresswoman. Even Duterte admonished Facebook last year for alleging that the Philippine military and police were linked to fake accounts removed by the platform. Within days, the president backtracked, emphasizing his interest in continued engagement with the company.
These examples demonstrate the fundamental tension surrounding debates on social media regulation. On one hand, platforms can help safeguard key public interests, such as public health and safety, when state actors not only fail in their obligations to do the same but act in ways that exacerbate the crisis. On the other hand, it is unsettling for social media platforms to make such momentous decisions based on opaque internal policies that operate outside of democratic governance processes.
Just like countries in Africa, many Asian states have reasserted their sovereignty online in a manner that curtails rather than protects freedom of expression. An increasing number of Asian states have enacted or proposed laws or regulations that tighten control over social media platforms. Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India, among others, have experimented with localization requirements and notice-and-takedown rules that track territorial boundaries and undermine an open internet. These moves pose a serious threat to free speech values.
The Philippines does not have equivalent legislation, though laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act can arguably expose social media platforms to liability. That law is currently subject to constitutional challenge with the Philippine Supreme Court. The hugely problematic anti-fake-news bill proposed in 2019 never gained traction and focused on social media users rather than on the platform. Likewise, the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which is also extremely problematic from a freedom of expression perspective, nonetheless targets only individual users. Another overbroad bill that sought to regulate social media in the guise of protecting children’s online privacy likewise did not gain significant momentum.
The Philippines is right not to enact a law that would regulate social media companies if that law would look anything like what other Asian states have enacted or proposed. The Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability, a set of human rights principles drafted by international civil society, coincidentally in Manila in 2015, prohibit governments from imposing liability on online intermediaries, including social media platforms, for content posted by users.
However, the choice for Filipinos should not be between either bad government regulation or none at all. Recent exposés demonstrating the problems with Facebook, including particularly glaring failures with regard to their impacts across the Global South, are just the latest demonstration of why carefully calibrated regulation is necessary. Political misinformation thriving on TikTok and YouTube ahead of the 2022 elections shows that the problem persists across platforms. States have the duty to protect human rights online by enacting legislation that protects communities from online harms. This, of course, requires that governments themselves are not actively violating human rights online, such as by launching disinformation campaigns or ordering the removal of speech protected under international human rights laws.
It’s time to think about what good regulation ought to look like in countries with relatively weak rule of law. No one solution will make these problems go away. But good social media regulation is possible if, as a starting point, we put communities affected by content moderation at the center of regulatory protection. This would include journalists, gender minorities, human rights activists, opposition leaders, and ordinary individuals on the receiving end of government harassment.
At the same time, the U.S. government should consider the extraterritorial human rights impact of homegrown technology. Talks of reforming Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, or of breaking up Big Tech, should at least consider foreign stakeholders in these discussions and how they might be affected by reforms. An “open internet” necessarily entails the openness to listen to communities and perspectives beyond Western borders.