In February 2019, the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation arrested the CEO of Rappler, Maria Ressa, over a cyber-libel case filed against her by businessman Wilfredo Keng. Ressa’s camp argued that the case is was invalid due to the fact that the alleged article that caused the suit was published months before RA 10175 Anti-Cybercrime Law has been put into effect. NBI initially agreed but later found a caveat to push the case: the article was “Updated” two years after it was originally posted on Rapppler’s website, in 2014.
Rappler then counter-argued that the prescription period of one year for filing a libel case has lapsed.
NBI presented several rebuttals: 1) that cyber-libel has a longer prescription period of more than one year; 2) that the article is in a state of “continuous publication” due to Rappler being an internet-only news outlet, and thus every time the article is loaded on a browser, it technically issues a brand new copy; 3) the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) of Rappler which keeps its pages on top of search engines’ search results is also a form of continuous publication.
This article is a closer look at the reasons given by the law enforcers for Ressa’s arrest.
1. What is an “Updated Article”?
The article of Rappler was first published in 2012, but later updated in 2014. The key issue here is that in 2012, it was exempted from cyber-libel due to RA 10175 being a non-retroactive law. But then the article was updated in 2014, when the law was already in effect. Ressa claimed that the update was a “mere typographical correction of a single letter that has not been capitalized in the original.” Yet, if we look at the nature of how an update to articles was made, it does not matter if the update changes only a letter or the entire article.
The process of publishing an article online requires the entire text to be saved in a database. A database is where all the data is being saved, composed of tables and cells. A common interface for article publication online presents a single textbox for the entire article, thus the article is saved on a single cell in the table.
Now, what we call an “UPDATE” to a cell record in a database is technically a combination of DELETE and SAVE function simultaneously. This means, an updated article is indeed a brand new published article, as the original one is basically DELETED.
Updated articles online usually do not retain the original version/s for economic purposes. An exception to this is Facebook, which keeps all previous versions of a post in their Edit History. Rappler notably do not show copies of the original articles which means previous versions of their articles are deleted, the updated version the ONLY copy published. The dates of the original publication and the update are just that: dates. The dates are the only data kept in database.
The bottom line here is that Rappler re-published the Keng article in 2014, two years after RA 10175 is already a law. Whatever excuse Ressa comes up for updating the article is inconsequential because an updated article is a re-published article. Ressa could have got a better defense if, instead of deleting and replacing the original, they just issued an erratum below the original article, pointing to the erratic text, like how traditional media do.
2. Continuous Publication
Continuous publication is an interesting subject, especially when it comes to Rappler’s nature as an internet-only news outlet. To make sense of this, let us look at the nature of how Rappler’s articles are served: the same as any page of any website. That is, one load of an article is a unique copy of an HTML document, which can be saved AND PRINTED—which was one of the original functions of the WEB. Therefore, one page load or reload is considered a preparation to print the page, and it counts an instance of a published document. This makes a extra sense in web development where bandwidths are metered every time a page is requested by a visitor. One click to an article is considered a hit: a request from Rappler’s servers to “SERVE and PUBLISH A COPY OF THE ARTICLE” for that specific device trying to load the page.
If the article has already been deleted on the database, it could no longer be considered published and each request would return a 404 (file not found) response. This is not the case with the Keng article. Rappler still serves the article as of February 2019. Rappler still earns from ads on that page. Basically, Rappler continuously publishes the article for profit.
The continuous publication, therefore, makes the date of the publication of the original article and the updated article insignificant as the prescription period, even if it is just one year, is being RESET every time one loads the article on their device. And in turn, they continually damage Mr. Keng’s reputation while Rappler earns more revenue, every time someone visits the said article.
And if that fact is not already daunting for news outlets that rely on the internet, there is more. Articles can be saved into screenshots. Each share of the screenshot across social media may also be considered a re-publication of the article in a digital image form. Articles can be shared. Each share of an article contains the headline and a summary of the article, which, if found substantial, can also be considered a re-publication of the article. On top of that all, we also have WEB ARCHIVES. Web archives are copies of pages saved on archive websites (like the Wayback Machine) which are saved for referential and historical purposes. Archives’ main purpose is to preserve a copy of a deleted web page that once served as a reference for another article. Even if, say, you deleted an article on your website to evade cyber-libel, your article may still be alive on these archives’ servers. These can be used as evidences that you truly wrote the article, and can also be considered an indirect continuous publication of the article.
This much digital footprints that an article leaves once it has been published online should prompt internet media outlets (and bloggers alike) to be extra careful with the contents they put up on the web. Nothing gets deleted on the internet. You have the right to remain offline. Everything you do or say online can be used and will be used against you. Maria Ressa and Rappler are now learning that the hard way.
3. Search Engine Optimization
SEO is a technical subject which has a wide array of sub-subjects. It is also subdivided into black hat (illegal), white hat (legal) and grey hat (sub legal, sub illegal.)
To explain it in layman, SEO is basically a game where you do certain things to remain on top of search results (like the results of Google search.) It’s simple, but its effects are astronomical in scale.
Let’s take Wilfredo Keng as an example. As a businessman, image is one of the things important to the survival of his business. Now, if someone uses Keng’s name as a search key, those that played the SEO game best will appear highest on Google’s search results. Rappler played this game a little further by being enlisted in Google News directory. Websites in this directory are not only listed in a special category of search results, they already have the advantage of listing highest on general search results.
Every time Google shows a snippet of the Keng article published by Rappler,the businessman is being brought under bad light, as well as his business, if we follow Mr. Keng’s reasons for filing the case. And it is not only Mr. Keng’s fight, as all his employees get affected every time his businesses lose clients due to the article.
SEO therefore is a game that affects lives, LITERALLY. And Google admitted on a recent article (published by 9to5Google) that they are also struggling in cracking fake news from their search engine, something that is not an easy endeavor. And that’s just Google alone. We also have other search engines with slightly different, and weaker, algorithms that can be easily played by SEO experts. Rappler, being an internet-only news outlet, is no doubt aware of this game, being heavily reliant on search results to gain reads. Snippets containing substantial texts putting Mr. Keng in bad light can also be considered continuous publication of the article. Furthermore, Google specially saves “caches” of pages listed on their search engine which can be considered another way that the article is being preserved and disseminated to the public even at the event that Rappler’s website goes down. Such snippets and caches are also part of Rappler’s overall strategy.
To wrap it all up, Rappler has come a long way of destroying Mr. Keng’s reputation for continuously publishing and distributing the article in various ways, for more than seven years. Keng claimed to have requested Rappler to take it down for many times, but the website still kept the article up and available. And for Wilfredo Keng’s case, being linked to drug syndicates and allegedly corrupt politicians is a big damage of inexplicable degree, even more now that there is an ongoing stigma brought upon by the government’s infamous “War on Drugs.” What about those employees of Mr. Keng who may have lost their jobs as an effect of Keng’s business losing clients?
As informed and educated people in our society, perhaps we should stop—even for a while—looking at the Rappler/Maria Ressa vs. NBI/Wilfredo Keng’s case as an “attack on press freedom.” Instead, let us observe how powerful the internet as technology can be. And how, on the wrong and irresponsible hands, it can destroy the reputation of one and the livelihood of many.