The Writ of Habeas Data and Facebook

An “activist” Supreme Court has been quietly but irrevocably redefining the Philippine legal landscape by institutionalizing remedies for the protection of human rights. In September 2007, the SC promulgated the rules governing the issuance of the Writ of Amparo (derived from the Spanish word “amparar”, meaning “to protect”). The writ is issued by the courts in favor of a petitioner whose right to life, liberty, and security has been violated or is threatened with violation by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or of a private individual or entity. The promulgation of the rules on the issuance of the writ was in response to the threats, extralegal killings and enforced disappearances prevalent in the country. The writ provides the private individual with a “weapon” to keep the wolves of private or state-sponsored oppression or coercion at bay.

Another tool for the protection of individual rights has lately been brought to the fore, with the promulgation by the SC in January 2008 of Administrative Memorandum 08-01-16-SC prescribing the new rules for the Writ of Habeas Data. The writ in general is designed to safeguard individual freedom from abuse in the information age by means of an individual complaint filed in court to protect the image, privacy, honor, information, self-determination, and freedom of information of a person. It is 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 employee, 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.

Thus, a person whose right to privacy has been violated or threatened by an entity which possesses data or information regarding the individual, his family, home or correspondences may ask for the issuance of the writ in order to protect his life, security or liberty. The introduction of the Writ of Habeas Data into the legal system further strengthens the right to privacy with respect to information relating to personal circumstances which a person has a right to protect.

It is now commonplace for entities, legit or otherwise, to capture and retain, against the will of the individual, data or information which they use for business purposes. Providing marketers access to demographic and behavioral information generates big bucks for companies like Facebook, the popular social networking site.

Facebook has been criticized for its questionable practice of keeping information on its members even after they have deactivated their accounts. Thus, while Facebook supposedly offers users the option to leave, Facebook servers keep copies of the information in their accounts indefinitely. Indeed, many users who have contacted Facebook to request that their accounts be deleted have not succeeded in erasing their records from the network.

The ostensible reason is that former users can re-activate at any time and have access to all their previous information. The real reason is that Facebook wants to monetize its popularity by providing marketable information on its members to the highest bidders. This presents an obvious right to privacy issue. The New York Times reports in a recent article:

“It’s like the Hotel California,” Nipon Das, 34, a director at a biotechnology consulting firm in Manhattan, who tried unsuccessfully to delete his account this fall said. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

It took Mr. Das about two months and several e-mail exchanges with Facebook’s customer service representatives to erase most of his information from the site, which finally occurred after he sent an e-mail threatening legal action. But even after that, a reporter was able to find Mr. Das’s empty profile on Facebook and successfully sent him an e-mail message through the network.

In response to difficulties faced by ex-Facebook members, a cottage industry of unofficial help pages devoted to escaping Facebook has sprung up online – both outside and inside the network.”

This is where the Writ of Habeas Data can come in, by enjoining the person or entity in possession of the data from retaining or making use of it against the concerned person’s wishes. This will ensure more transparency and accountability in the handling of information, specially as it the affects individual’s right to privacy.

The problem for us would be how to bring Facebook to answer for its actions before the courts in the absence of a legal representative in the Philippines.

Recently, quitting Facebook got easier.

An interesting piece on “identity management” on social networking sites like Facebook.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge