Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides the right to freedom of expression. To include the freedom to hold opinions and either to receive or impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
In English case law, that right is extended (see Bardiness 200) that freedom of speech could not be limited to the inoffensive but also to the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence.
Indeed, article 10 also accords the right to be offensive. Being offensive is very different to being libellous, which in civil law is a minefield to manoeuvre through. This is one of the contentious issues enacted in the new Philippines Cyber Crime Law.
It has provoked an outcry in the Philippines and been dubbed the e-Martial Law. It is opposed by human rights organizations, journalists, political activists and bloggers and even implies that merely "liking" a phrase or comment on Facebook or other social networking sites implicates the reader by association. It goes further in that websites can be shut down, computer data can be seized, and convictions can lead to imprisonment of up to 12 years.
Just how serious is it, and what does it say about the government of a free democratic society that seems to be able to implement a law which effectively curtails freedom of speech?
Is it a flash in the pan, has it been taken out context, has the government failed to present its case intelligently? Reading many of the Philippines newspapers, their articles are a tedious litany of acronyms producing gobbledegook mired in plodding dialogue.
Officials say that it is intended to prevent online child pornography, cybersex, identity theft and spamming, and to "address legitimate concerns" about criminal and abusive online behaviour.
However, protesters say that this legislation could be used to target government critics, and therefore crack down on freedom of speech - something more akin to China than a free republic.
It's argued that any person found guilty of libellous comments online, even including comments on Facebook or Twitter, could be fined or jailed.
As in the off-line world, freedom of speech is not a license to defame. It is not a charter to cast aspersion. Anyone, and that includes investigative journalists, do not have the right to carte blanche accuse or denigrate individuals without the ability to back up their words with evidence. Otherwise they commit libel. If they said it verbally in the streets then it would be slander.
The issue here (and the law is surely likely to be postponed whilst clarified and hopefully modified), is the charge at the government that they could target individuals perceived as a threat. It's the "know thine enemy" syndrome.
It could be the thin end of the wedge.
However, there is a lot of vicious vitriol on the web, and mud sticks. Many create dissent hiding behind pseudonym and avatars. It's a phenomenon that anyone can say whatever they like without fear of reprisal. Be they trolls, bullies, sexual predators, or political activists with particular agendas.
We see it often in the UK. A policeman gets murdered, and within minutes someone has set up a Facebook page extolling and praising the virtues of the perpetrator. A child commits suicide or gets run over by a train and the trolls appear from the woodwork making offensive and hurtful comments directed at the parents.
A celebrity receives online threats to keep an eye on their family, and young people are subject to cyber-bullying causing them to self-harm or become withdrawn and afraid to go to school. None of this was envisaged in Article 10, and it certainly does not constitute freedom of speech.
Libel is something very different, and be it in print or electronic ink the rules should still apply.
If I don't like a fat, arrogant politician for example, I can call him fat. That is not libel if he actually is. If he is not, then it is merely a figure of speech and a question of opinion. I can call him arrogant, because that is my opinion. If he is not, then it is just an insult. I cannot however, no matter how much I think he may be, call him fat, arrogant and corrupt. That is libellous. He may be corrupt, but without evidence, and without having been proven in law that he was corrupt, then I have been irresponsible, and opened myself up to a charge of libel and I can be sued. Yet, the mud has stuck. People have read my comment, and true or not, that man's reputation has been tarnished.
He may then pursue me through the courts. The onus on him is to prove that he isn't corrupt, not on me to prove that he is. If he wins then I will have to pay substantial damages. I cannot be convicted of a criminal offence, but my pocket could be severely damaged. It takes a brave and wealthy individual to fight a libel case, and that's why few come to court. Invariably, in the case of newspapers, they settle outside of it, with a small apology tucked away in a column buried on a page somewhere.
And this is the crux of the matter. The internet has given a voice to the hoi polloi to say whatever they want, whenever they want, without substance, merely opinion, and get away with it.
That's not freedom of speech. That's not what the laws and conventions were made to protect.
With freedom comes responsibility. There are too many people, hiding incognito, stirring up trouble, being insulting, offensive, agitating and in extreme cases causing dissent. They use the internet to further their own cause, plant seeds of bitter fruit, designed to unstable and cause mayhem. Some have genuine grievance, others are just downright troublemakers.
The Philippines Government, may, just may, have brought this to global attention and caused us all to think.
How they did it, their method of execution, their inability to explain themselves properly has caused a backlash of immense proportion.
Some may regard the Philippines' government as brave for meeting head on the power of the internet and it's potential destabilising influence - others may regard their actions as a devious and sinister manipulation of power.
It can only be hoped a sensible compromise will ensue.