STC Cebu case: Setting the rule on online self-regulation in PH

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In January 2012, five teenaged girls attended a beach party thrown by one member of their group celebrating her birthday. Minors all, they were high school seniors of St. Theresa’s College (STC) Cebu, a strict convent school in the southern city run by the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM).

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Their juvenile hijinks that day eventually led to a case that reached the Supreme Court and caused it to define the parameters of privacy protection in the Philippines for netizens in their use of social media.

The case also shed initial light on the Writ of Habeas Data and the relevance of this judicial remedy, which aggrieved individuals in the Philippines could resort to in defense of their civil liberties, specifically their right to privacy.

In penning the decision, the Third Division of the SC declared that, “self-regulation on the part of the OSN user, especially minors, and Internet consumers in general, is the best means of avoiding privacy rights violations.”

OSNs, as used by court in this decision, mean online social networks or online social networking. Facebook, with 47 million users in the Philippines as of July 2016, is one such platform.

In January 2008, the high tribunal had added the Writ of Habeas Data to the list of judicial remedies that persons could avail of in defense of their liberties. Listed in the country’s Rules of Court, it took effect February 2 of that year.

The SC defined the Writ of Habeas Data as “a remedy available to any person whose right to privacy in life, liberty or security is violated or threatened by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or of a private individual or entity engaged in the gathering, collecting or storing of data or information regarding the person, family, home and correspondence of the aggrieved party.”

A petition for such a writ could be filed before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) where the petitioner or respondent resides. The RTC could also be one which has jurisdiction over the place where the data or the information had been gathered, collected or stored.

In cases where a government office had collected the data, the petition could also be filed before the Sandiganbayan.

A section of this rule specifically indicated that such a writ could also be petitioned for with regard to extrajudicial killings and involuntary disappearances, the relatives of such victims having the right to file such. If issued, the writ could be enforced anywhere in the Philippines.

It was in this light that the case of the teenagers and their juvenile activity reached all the way up to the SC.

Shortly before the teenagers had changed into their swimsuits, they took group selfie photographs of themselves. From their waists up, they were wearing only their brassieres. One of the girls then uploaded the pictures onto her Facebook account.

Not too long afterwards, an STC computer teacher learned from her students about these photos. She asked her students who these girls with their brassieres exposed were and her students identified them one by one.

The teacher’s students then used the computers in the school’s computer laboratory to log in to their personal and respective Facebook accounts. There, the photos of two of the teenaged girls who had attended the party showed them drinking hard liquor and smoking cigarettes inside a bar.

The computer teacher reported the matter to school officials and the latter determined that the partygoers violated the rules of proper conduct as spelt out in the STC handbook. The violations consisted of the following:

  • Possession of alcoholic drinks outside the school campus
  • Engaging in immoral, indecent, obscene or lewd acts
  • Smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages in public places
  • Wearing apparel that exposes the underwear
  • Wearing clothing that advocates unhealthy behavior, depicts obscenity, contains sexually suggestive messages,languages or symbols

On March 1 that year, the school principal, Sr. Ma. Purisma Pe informed the parents of these girls that they would be barred from taking part in the graduation ceremonies scheduled for March 30.

A week before the graduation rites, two of the parents filed before the RTC Cebu an injunction suit against STC, the computer teacher, and school officials.

The petitioners asked that the sanctions not be implemented and the schoolgirls be allowed to attend the graduation ceremonies.

On March 28, the RTC issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against STC, the computer teacher, and school officials with regard to the sanctions imposed on the teenaged girls. In spite this, they still were not allowed by the school to take part in the commencement rites.

The school officials asserted in their motion for reconsideration on the TRO had yet to be resolved. As a result, the parents of the two girls filed before the RTC a Petition for the Issuance of a Writ of Habeas Data. The arguments were the following:

  • The photos of their children in their undergarments had been taken for posterity before they changed into their swimsuits
  • The privacy settings of their children’s Facebook accounts had been set to “Friends Only.” They therefore had reasonable expectations of privacy that should be respected
  • As educators, the school officials and the computer teacher knew or should have known of laws that safeguard and individual’s right to privacy
  • The STC officials should likewise have known that the schoolgirls, whose privacy had been invaded, were the victims, not the offenders
  • The photos accessed belonged to the schoolgirls and could therefore not be used or reproduced without their knowledge and consent
  • The computer teacher violated the girls? rights by saving digital copies of the photos and afterwards showing them to STC officials. As a result, the girls? Facebook accounts were intruded upon
  • Intrusion into the Facebook accounts took place at the STC Computer Laboratory
  • All the data and digital images extracted were submitted to the RTC in connection with the case

The petitioners then prayed for the following:

  • Issuance of a Writ of Habeas Data
  • The teacher and school officials be ordered by the RTC to surrender to and deposit with the court all soft and printed copies of the data before or at the preliminary hearings
  • After the trial and rendering of the court decision, all information. Data and digital images accessed, saved or stored, spread and used be declared to have been illegally obtained in violation of the schoolgirls’ privacy

On July 5 that year, the RTC issued a Writ of Habeas Data, but the computer teacher and school officials were given five days and submit their verified written return.

Their arguments were the following:

  • The petitioners were not the proper parties to file the petition
  • The petitioners were engaged in forum shopping
  • The case involved was not one were the Writ of habeas Data could be issued
  • There could never have been a violation of the schoolgirls? right to privacy, as there is no reasonable expectation of privacy on Facebook

On July 27, the RTC dismissed the petition for a Writ of Habeas Data. This was because the petitioners failed to prove there was actual or threatened violation of the schoolgirls’ right to privacy. Because the photos had been uploaded onto the Internet without restrictions on who could view them, the students had lost their privacy in one way.

Having lost in the RTC, the petitioners then brought their case to the SC which upheld the RTC’s decision. It said that having an expectation of informational privacy is not necessarily incompatible with engaging in cyberspace activities, OSN activities included.

It qualified that “Before one can have an expectation of privacy in his or her OSN activity, it is first necessary that said user, in this case the children of petitioners manifest the intention to keep certain posts private through the employment of measures to prevent access thereto or limit visibility.”

It further said that utilization ofan OSN’s privacy tools would be the manifestation of the user’s invocation of his or her right to information privacy.

The decision pointed out that the STC students other than the five schoolgirls at the beach party showed the photos to the computer teacher. This disproved the petitioners’ claim that only their group of party-goers could access them.

The decision further said that “it is reasonable to assume, therefore that the photos were, in reality, by either 1) their Facebook friends or 2) by the public at large.” Likewise, it said the computer teacher and school officials never resorted to unlawful means of gathering the information. They were voluntarily given by persons who had access to the posts.

It stated that, “Had it been proved that access to the pictures posted were limited to the original uploader through the ‘Me Only’ privacy setting or that the user’s contact list has been screened to limit access to a select few through the ‘Custom setting,’ the result may have been different.”

Thus, it reaffirmed the RTC Cebu’s decision. It had been penned on September on Sept. 29, 2014. Until now, not too many netizens in the country are familiar with its ramifications on their use of social media platforms, especially Facebook.

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