Manila – Opposition Sen. Leila de Lima urged the Senate to probe the alleged sale of text blast machines on Facebook (marketplace) Philippines and e-commerce companies Lazada and Shopee through Senate Resolution (SR) number 934.
The resolution is directing the appropriate Senate Committee to investigate “the possible use and abuse of unlicensed radio equipment to send emergency text blasts during the filing of candidacy of an aspiring presidential candidate last October 6.”
“It is the primordial duty of the Philippine Senate, in the exercise of its legislative and oversight functions, to ensure that the government is strictly implementing the law about emergency alerts according to its intention and provide mechanisms to improve the country’s policy regarding emergency alerts and text blasting especially during election periods,” De Lima said.
A press statement released by the Senate referred to text blasting as “the action in a radio communication system where text messages are being sent to numerous and random recipients. An equipment such as a transmitter is required to perform this action where such devices have the capability to deliver about 100,000 text messages per hour.”
The incident in question was the filing of former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s candidacy for president, with mobile users present at the Sofitel Harbor Garden tent, used by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) as a venue for filing of Certificates of Candidacy for the May 2022 polls, reportedly receiving a text blast cheering for him.
On the same day, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) denied its emergency alert system was used to disseminate messages for the candidate.
“The NDRRMC does not issue this type of message for distribution to the public through our Telco partners,” NDRRMC spokesperson Mark Timbal told reporters in a text message, noting the usage of the emergency alerts system is governed by Republic Act No. 10639 which requires that warning messages must be hazard-specific, time-bound and area-specific.”
The NDRRMC also ordered Facebook, Lazada and Shopee to promptly stop selling text blast machines, “stating that no authorization was issued to the importation, manufacture, sale, and distribution of devices, such as Hitech SMS blaster, SMS location blasting system, and other similar products found within their platforms.”
“There is no penalty specifically for the use of emergency channels for campaigning under electoral law, using it for political propaganda purposes is ill-advised, at best,” COMELEC spokesperson James Jimenez said.
eCommerce platforms could be held liable for the sale of text blast machines
In another report by The Philippine Star, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said that under his proposed Internet Transactions Act, electronic commerce platforms along with parties or merchants “can be held solitarily liable” for the sale of text blast machines and other prohibited digital products.
Gatchalian said the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued show-cause and cease-and-desist orders to Lazada, Shopee and Facebook Marketplace after they advertise the sale of text blast machines on their respective sites.
Last June, Gatchalian filed Senate Bill number 1591 which aimed at protecting consumers and merchants engaged in internet transactions, creating for this purpose the eCommerce Bureau.
“The reason why we included the joint and solidary liability in Senate Bill number 1591 is to make these platforms responsible in protecting the interest of the consumers,” he said as the Bill’s principal author.
“We want to facilitate the services offered online but there are still those who take advantage of this platform and this is what we want to address here in this proposal,” he said.
The NTC noted that the same text blast machines and similar equipment “appear to violate the Radio Control Law and other regulations such as its Memorandum Order 01-02-2013 or the Prohibition of Portable Cellular Mobile Repeater and Portable Cell Site Equipment.”
“Online shopping or e-Commerce has radically changed the way we live our lives. Whether as a consumer or a seller, technology and the internet have dramatically transformed the way businesses and transactions are conducted,” Gatchalian said, noting the proposed bill seeks “to protect consumers from unethical, illegal and unscrupulous business practices of those engaged in e-Commerce.”
De Lima noted that the Sofitel incident and similar others prove that the “weaponization of text blast machines was already prevalent in smaller towns during the 2019 elections.”
“The use of emergency government channels for campaign purposes could set a dangerous precedent in future elections if it is left unchecked,” she said, highlighting the need for Congress “to formulate amendments to existing laws to prevent the use of text blast machines for such purposes.”
“The Cybercrime Prevention Act prohibits unsolicited commercial communications. There is need to consider whether the same should likewise be prohibited for political and election-related ‘spamming’ activities,” she added.
De Lima also pointed out the need to strengthen The Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Act to prevent the use of text blast machines not intended for emergency use.