Published 27 June 2022, The Daily Tribune

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have transformed the way the world communicates and connects. Information is shared more rapidly than ever before. Anyone can have access to news as it is happening. At the same time, social media has blurred the lines between what is public and what is private.

In the Philippines, the right to privacy is expressly recognized under Section 3, Article III (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution. The right, of course, is not absolute. In a recent Supreme Court decision involving the admissibility of a chat thread between private individuals, the High Court ruled that a person cannot invoke his constitutional right to privacy if the photographs and messages from his/her social media posts are obtained by private individuals and not by law enforcers or by government agents.

In the 31-page decision penned by Associate Justice Jhosep Lopez, the Supreme Court sustained the conviction of petitioner, Cadajas, who was accused of violating Republic Act 9775 or the Anti-Child Pornography Act.

The factual antecedents provide that, in 2016, the petitioner, who was then 24 years old, had a romantic relationship with a female minor who was then 14 years old. The minor and petitioner communicated through Facebook Messenger. In communicating, the minor used her mother’s mobile phone.

In one of their conversations, the petitioner urged the minor to send photos of her private parts, to which the minor obliged. Thereafter, the minor’s mother discovered their conversation upon the minor’s failure to log out her social media account from her mother’s mobile phone. This prompted the minor to delete the messages in her social media account. However, the minor’s mother forced her to open her account to obtain copies of her conversation with the petitioner.

In his petition against the Court of Appeals (CA) decision, which affirmed the ruling of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), petitioner claimed that the photographs presented in evidence against him were taken from his Facebook Messenger account, which he claimed violated his right to privacy. Petitioner further claimed that since the evidence presented violates his right to privacy, any evidence obtained amounts to a fruit of poisonous tree.

In disagreeing with petitioner, the Supreme Court found that the chat thread contained in Facebook Messenger was not obtained through the efforts of police officers or any State agent, but from a private individual who had access to the photos and conversations in the chat thread. Thus, the Supreme Court rejected the claim of the petitioner that the chat thread presented as evidence against him by the victim should be excluded.

The Supreme Court explained that: “(W)hile the (constitutional) provision highlights the importance of the right to privacy and its consequent effect on the rules on admissibility of evidence, one must not lose sight of the fact that the Bill of Rights was intended to protect private individuals against government intrusions. Hence, its provisions are not applicable between and among private individuals.” The rule governing the admissibility of an evidence under the Constitution must affect only those pieces of evidence obtained by the State through its agents. Thus, where private individuals are involved, for which their relationship is governed by the New Civil Code, the admissibility of an evidence cannot be determined by the provisions of the Bill of Rights.

The Supreme Court further ruled that by informing the minor the password to his Facebook Messenger account, the petitioner’s privacy cannot be said to be violated by the minor since the petitioner lost a reasonable expectation of privacy over the contents of his social media account. Even if the minor was only forced by her mother to obtain the photos and messages, there is still no violation of the petitioner’s privacy, since by allowing another person access to his account, the petitioner made its contents available not only to the minor, but to other persons the minor might show the account to, regardless if she was forced to do so.

Cadajas invoked other defenses such as violation of his right to data privacy law and the consensual nature of the relationship. These will be discussed in the next column. For now, the lesson is not only to refrain from sharing your password, but to exercise circumspection in our social media posts.

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