Political Law

Rhonda Vivares vs St. Theresa’s College

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G.R. No. 202666 – 737 SCRA 92 – Political Law – Constitutional Law – Bill of Rights – Right to Privacy – Online Privacy (Social Media)

Remedial Law – Special Proceedings – Writ of Habeas Data

In January 2012, Angela Tan, a high school student at St. Theresa’s College (STC), uploaded on Facebook several pictures of her and her classmates (Nenita Daluz and Julienne Suzara) wearing only their undergarments.

Thereafter, some of their classmates reported said photos to their teacher, Mylene Escudero. Escudero, through a student’s Facebook account, viewed and downloaded said pictures. She showed the said pictures to STC’s Discipline-in-Charge for appropriate action.

Later, STC found Tan et al to have violated the student’s handbook and banned them from “marching” in their graduation ceremonies scheduled in March 2012.

The issue went to court but despite a TRO (temporary restraining order) granted by the Cebu RTC enjoining the school from barring the students in the graduation ceremonies, STC still barred said students.

Subsequently, Rhonda Vivares, mother of Nenita, and the other mothers filed a petition for the issuance of the writ of habeas data against the school. They argued, among others, that:

1. The privacy setting of their children’s Facebook accounts was set at “Friends Only.” They, thus, have a reasonable expectation of privacy which must be respected.

2. The photos accessed belong to the girls and, thus, cannot be used and reproduced without their consent. Thus, Escudero violated their rights by saving digital copies of the photos and by subsequently showing them to STC’s officials. The Facebook accounts of the children were intruded upon;

3. The intrusion into the Facebook accounts, as well as the copying of information, data, and digital images happened at STC’s Computer Laboratory;

They prayed that STC be ordered to surrender and deposit with the court all soft and printed copies of the subject data and have such data be declared illegally obtained in violation of the children’s right to privacy.

The Cebu RTC eventually denied the petition. Hence, this appeal.

ISSUE: Whether or not the petition for writ of habeas data is proper.

HELD: Yes, it is proper but in this case, it will not prosper.

Contrary to the arguments of STC, the Supreme Court ruled that:

1. The petition for writ of habeas data can be availed of even if this is not a case of extralegal killing or enforced disappearance; and

2. The writ of habeas data can be availed of against STC even if it is not an entity engaged in the business of “gathering, collecting, or storing data or information regarding the person, family, home and correspondence of the aggrieved party”.

First, the Rule on Habeas Data does not state that it can be applied only in cases of extralegal killings or enforced disappearances. Second, nothing in the Rule would suggest that the habeas data protection shall be available only against abuses of a person or entity engaged in the business of gathering, storing, and collecting of data.

Right to Privacy on Social Media (Online Networking Sites)

The Supreme Court ruled that if an online networking site (ONS) like Facebook has privacy tools, and the user makes use of such privacy tools, then he or she has a reasonable expectation of privacy (right to informational privacy, that is). Thus, such privacy must be respected and protected.

In this case, however, there is no showing that the students concerned made use of such privacy tools. Evidence would show that that their post (status) on Facebook were published as “Public”.

Facebook has the following settings to control as to who can view a user’s posts on his “wall” (profile page):

(a) Public – the default setting; every Facebook user can view the photo;

(b) Friends of Friends – only the user’s Facebook friends and their friends can view the photo;

(c) Friends – only the user’s Facebook friends can view the photo;

(d) Custom – the photo is made visible only to particular friends and/or networks of the Facebook user; and

(e) Only Me – the digital image can be viewed only by the user.

The default setting is “Public” and if a user wants to have some privacy, then he must choose any setting other than “Public”. If it is true that the students concerned did set the posts subject of this case so much so that only five people can see them (as they claim), then how come most of their classmates were able to view them. This fact was not refuted by them. In fact, it was their classmates who informed and showed their teacher, Escudero, of the said pictures. Therefore, it appears that Tan et al never use the privacy settings of Facebook hence, they have no reasonable expectation of privacy on the pictures of them scantily clad.

STC did not violate the students’ right to privacy. The manner which the school gathered the pictures cannot be considered illegal. As it appears, it was the classmates of the students who showed the picture to their teacher and the latter, being the recipient of said pictures, merely delivered them to the proper school authority and it was for a legal purpose, that is, to discipline their students according to the standards of the school (to which the students and their parents agreed to in the first place because of the fact that they enrolled their children there).

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Some notable foreign jurisprudence used by the Supreme Court in this case:

1. United States v. Gines-Perez: “A person who places a photograph on the Internet precisely intends to forsake and renounce all privacy rights to such imagery, particularly under circumstances such as here, where the Defendant did not employ protective measures or devices that would have controlled access to the Web page or the photograph itself.”

2. United States v. Maxwell: “The more open the method of transmission is, the less privacy one can reasonably expect. Messages sent to the public at large in the chat room or e-mail that is forwarded from correspondent to correspondent loses any semblance of privacy.”

3. H v. W, (South Africa Case dated January 30, 2013): “The law has to take into account the changing realities not only technologically but also socially or else it will lose credibility in the eyes of the people. x x x It is imperative that the courts respond appropriately to changing times, acting cautiously and with wisdom.”

Note: This case recognized the ability of Facebook users to “customize their privacy settings,” but did so with this caveat: “Facebook states in its policies that, although it makes every effort to protect a user’s information, these privacy settings are not foolproof.”

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