Internet transactions bill approved unanimously by House committee

THE proposed Internet Transactions Act, which seeks to establish an electronic commerce (e-commerce) bureau, was unanimously approved by the House Trade Committee on Wednesday.

The committee had consolidated several bills before voting for the version it approved, invoking section 48 of the rules of the House of Representatives, which allows records of past proceedings to be made part of the committee’s own records.

The bill is one of the 19 priority bills cited by President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. during his first address to Congress, in which he underscored the need for “a law (establishing) effective regulation of commercial activities through the internet or electronic means to ensure that consumer rights and data privacy are protected, innovation is encouraged, fair advertising practices and competition are promoted, online transactions are secure, intellectual property rights are respected, and where product standards and safety are observed.”

“As we all know, online, retail and e-commerce services are now a mainstay of our daily lives. The exponential rise and consequent prevalence of online purchases are largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns that have constrained the everyday consumer to stay at home,” Batangas Rep. Mario Vittorio A. Mariňo, who chairs the committee, told the hearing.

“The growth of e-commerce transactions, however, resulted in the apparent need for government regulation,” he added.

He cited a 2020 report by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) which indicated that the two biggest online shopping platforms, Lazada and Shopee, posted a volume of complaint three to five times larger than their 2019 tallies.

Even though complaints eventually declined, “there is still a pressing need to provide an efficient regulatory mechanism to address consumer complaints and concerns, including privacy issues, trade, taxation and labor,” Mr. Mariňo said.

“Likewise, consumer concerns on security issues should be addressed by strengthening awareness of data security, and supporting the capability of firms to protect their e-commerce platforms,” he added.

The measure also seeks to establish an integrated, interconnected, and interoperable information, resource sharing and communications network, which will include internal records, management information systems, databases, and digital portals across all levels of government for the delivery of public services.

The measure will promote the use of the internet, intranets, and emerging technologies to provide “citizen-centric government information and services.” It also calls for an end to paper-based workflows.

Tingog Party-list Rep. Jude A. Acidre, speaking at the hearing, said the passage of the bill will promote and maintain a “robust electronic commerce environment… and build trust between online merchants and consumers through secure and reliable electronic commerce platforms.”

He expects it to help build transparency and efficiency in online transactions for goods and services, and encourage the creation of new products, services, business models and processes.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for e-commerce in the Philippines due to the rising middle class, high consumer spending and the young, vibrant, tech-savvy population,” ACT-CIS Party-list Rep. Jeffrey P. Soriano said. “However, the rising dependence on e-commerce (opens up the risk of) online scams, computer-related identity theft, and phishing.”

“The Philippines still lacks an independent and highly specialized body that is tasked to regulate e-commerce,” he added. “There is a lingering insufficient adeptness in handling cases involving electronic transactions, even with the guidance of the enforcement agencies.”

If the measure passes, the Department of Information and Communications Technology will be tasked with harmonizing and coordinating all information technology-related plans and initiatives.

It will be required to set up an Integrated Government Network which will be the primary means of sharing resources, information, and data on digital platforms across all government offices.

The bill also requires the establishment of a service portal, allowing the public to transact with agencies online. The bill sets timelines for responsible personnel to act or decide on requests or applications. Another portal will be set up for online payments.

Under the measure, the government must provide free internet access to the public, including internet-capable devices in all barangay centers.

The bill was passed on final reading by the House of Representatives during the 18th Congress, but stalled on second reading in the Senate by the time the session adjourned sine die. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan