Don’t leave millions behind, rethink the Mandatory SIM Registration – CPDG

April 28, 2023

Who benefits from development? This is a fundamental question in development efforts, which often prioritize profit over the welfare of people.

In March of 2022, the Philippine government officialized the implementation of the SIM Card Registration Act  which mandates the registration of SIM cards in a centralized database as a prerequisite for its sale and activation. The immediate passage of the law purportedly aims to resolve the proliferation of scam text messages including disinformation. 

Critics from civil society are strongly opposed to the law. One of the ardent oppositors, Junk SIM Registration Network, warned of security risks of the mandatory SIM Card registration, the looming issue of disenfranchisement, and how it will potentially deprive many Filipinos in the low income and rural communities of access to communication, important services, including emergency warnings, advisories pertaining to health and even government relief in times of crises.

Rochelle Porras of the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research adds that workers, especially those in the informal sector, will be further disenfranchised. “In the event that  workers fail to register their  SIM cards due to complicated requirements and systems, they will be unable to receive and maintain access to social and economic aid. Furthermore, their identification cards issued by local government units may be forfeited, impeding their exercise of fundamental rights necessary to access job opportunities. It is worth mentioning that even the purchase of a SIM card worth only Php30.00 may already be beyond their means, given the soaring inflation and prices of commodities”, says Porras.

“Mandatory SIM Card registration is nothing but  sham development. It does not contribute at all to the elimination of widespread disinformation, let alone scam text messages that often victimize the unsuspecting, misinformed and unlearned in digital technology. It will also worsen the exclusion of vulnerable groups especially indigenous peoples, and the low-income families due to its many and costly pre-requirements,” said   Liza Maza, Spokesperson of Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG).

Banks claim that reported victims of scams increased with the SIM registration. 

During the SIM registration process, an identification card is required to be uploaded. According to the Junk SIM Registration Network, around 14 million Filipinos do not possess a valid ID. Similarly, the Philippine Statistics Authority stated that around 5.7 million Filipinos aged 15 years old and above, do not have a valid government-issued identification card.  Furthermore, registering SIM cards requires a stable internet connection and a smartphone, which are not always available and, worse, only notional in rural and low-income communities.

“Not only does the mandatory SIM Card Registration pose complex pre-requirements, it also interferes with the right to privacy and freedom of expression and facilitates state  surveillance,” Maza continued.

Those who are most vulnerable to digital surveillance are human rights defenders who have been continuously targeted and red-tagged by state authorities, in conjunction with the draconian Anti-Terrorism Law. 

Additionally, according to Ganda Filipinas, the law also exposes women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community to further discrimination as they will be at risk of experiencing unwarranted harassment, violence, and abuse both online and in person. Moreover, trans individuals may also be subject to deadnaming by being forced to use their legal name, which is inherently transphobic. This is especially concerning as there is no gender-recognition law in place that would allow trans people to legally change their names or gender identity on official documents.

CPDG echoes the points laid out by the Computer Professionals’ Union (CPU) in challenging the constitutionality of the SIM Registration Law. According to the CPU, the act of registering SIM cards, despite being implemented in other countries, is not effective in preventing the crimes it claims to stop. In fact, it poses a risk to our safety. CPU further argues the government has  not taken steps to safeguard the privacy of Filipino citizens by reinforcing the provisions and implementation of the Data Privacy Act of 2012, nor has it  tackled the underlying causes of criminal activity by mitigating the current health and economic crises.

“CPDG  expresses extreme concern that the Philippine government is leaving marginalized sectors and vulnerable groups behind due to very poor preparation and ultra-hasty implementation of the SIM Registration Act. Since there is no get-at-table Information and Communications Technology (ICT) training in the country, digitally incapacitated sectors become more vulnerable by unwillingly, worse unknowingly, giving out their personal data, metadata, and information,” iterates Maza.

The recent announcement by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) regarding the extension of the SIM registration period does not address the concerns that many citizens have regarding the potential negative consequences of this policy.

Consumer network, Samahan at Ugnayan ang Konsyumers para sa Ikauunlad ng bayan (SUKI) calls out the DICT for threatening the cancellation of data services approaching the 90 day- extension saying this will deprive consumers’ access to some basic transactions including financial, social security, and communication needs.

We call on the government to seriously rethink the law taking note of the adverse effects that this policy will have on inclusivity, privacy, security, and freedom of expression. These fundamental rights are integral to the democratic fabric of our society, and any policy that infringes upon them must be critically evaluated and challenged. The government should carefully plan and develop a mechanism that would truly resolve digital crime without leaving millions behind.#eof#