POSTSCRIPT / November 23, 2006 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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RP laws are inadequate for curbing Internet libel

EBDANE BILLED: Public Works and Highways Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., it is reported, is high on the short list of probable replacements of Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz, who has resigned irrevocably effective end of the month.

Based on his track record as a security professional, Ebdane appears to be more suited for the defense post than the one he is now holding that involves the building of roads, bridges and other public works.

But before he moves over to defense, assuming he makes it, Ebdane might want to first settle one outstanding obligation of his department resulting from its illegal use during the past 24 years of a big private lot in Catmon, Malabon.

The accumulated unpaid rent, plus interest, for the 5,916 square meters owned by one Flordeliz Gozon Borja has ballooned to at least P570 million, by her count. The longer the department holds back payment the bigger the bill will be.

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FUNDS MISSING: Funds for leasing space being used by the DPWH are regularly appropriated in the budget. Where is the rent money set aside annually for the past 24 years?

Ebdane may want to look into what looks like misappropriation of public funds. Better still, he should settle the P570-million (and counting) bill or work out a payment schedule acceptable to Borja the owner.

Long deprived of her valuable property, the owner is now not only trying to collect, but has filed a complaint with the Ombudsman for graft against Ebdane and subordinate officials in the national capital region and the third engineering district that is illegally using the private lot.

The sheriff has been going back and forth trying to force payment or eject the illegal occupants pursuant to court rulings, but how does a plain citizen like Borja assert her rights against a ranking member of the Arroyo Cabinet?

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RELIABLE CARS: What cars are considered by Americans as the most predictably reliable?

The latest survey of Consumer Reports magazine, arguably the Bible of US car owners, shows that while a few American models have improved their satisfaction rating, Japanese vehicles are still among the best when it comes to predicted reliability.

The rankings appeared in the 2007 New Car Preview issue of Consumer Reports. It based its predictions on survey data from the owners of around 1.3 million vehicles who subscribed to the magazine and its website. Overall reliability scores for the last three years were averaged for each model.

The midsized Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan scored big in the new car reliability survey, just nosing out the industry’s quality standard-bearers, the Honda Accord V6 and Toyota Camry V6.

But the Japanese dominated the field. Of the 47 vehicles with the highest predicted reliability, 39 are Japanese. All but seven of them are made by Toyota or Honda.

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LEAST RELIABLE: Six of the “most reliable” are from General Motors or Ford: midsize Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, Lincoln Zephyr, large non-luxury Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon and Pontiac Vibe wagon.

No vehicles from DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group made the “most reliable” list. Only one European car, the Mini Cooper, made it. Of the “least reliable” cars, 19 of the 45 are European models.

To illustrate the difference between the most and the least reliable vehicles, Consumer Reports compared the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and the Mercedes-Benz M-class SUVs. The magazine said the owner of the M-class is likely to experience 10 times as many problems as the owner the Highlander Hybrid.

The magazine noted that hybrid vehicles have shown particularly good reliability, although the Ford Escape dropped from “above average” to “average” predicted reliability for the 2007 model. Other hybrid models, made by Toyota and Honda, have had excellent reliability, according to the magazine.

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MERCEDES BRISTLES: Of course, Mercedes-Benz was not happy with the very damaging reviews of its proud vehicles.

As CNN explained it, for the 2007 edition of its New Car Preview, Consumer Reports surveyed its six million subscribers about what serious problems they had with the cars they own. Some 1.3 million responded and the results were not good for Mercedes-Benz.

CNN continued: In a listing of the least reliable luxury cars, based on 2006 models, three of the six cars are Mercedes: the old S-class (prior to the recent redesign), the CLS and the E-class Sedan.

In the sport cars division, Mercedes hogged three of the seven slots for least reliable: the SL, the CLK and the V6 SLK.

Among mid-sized SUVs, the M-class, a quality disaster when it first came out, still ranks as the least reliable in its grouping.

Other luxury manufacturers turn up on the least reliable list, with BMWs, Jaguars and Cadillacs sprinkled throughout.

But what is striking about Mercedes’ performance is its consistency. Of the 11 models reviewed by Consumers, none are recommended. Seven are left off the list because of poor reliability. The remaining four are considered too new to predict.

A Mercedes spokesman said that the data in the Consumer rankings are “totally out of sync with what we’re seeing in the mainstream research as well as our own customer satisfaction and warranty data.” He points to the good marks Mercedes gets for ride, handling, comfort, safety and performance.

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CYBER LIBEL: We in the Philippines are still a long way off in rewriting our libel law to cover new communication phenomena, including apparent libel or defamation perpetrated across cyber space.

Even our laws regulating e-commerce, or business transacted via the Internet, have fallen behind world trends. This has resulted at times in government’s inability to prosecute fully cyber criminals who pull off dirty tricks with the whole world watching.

It may or may not be instructive, but in a ruling reported Monday by the Associated Press, the California Supreme Court said that websites that publish inflammatory information written by other parties cannot be sued for libel.

The decision favoring free online expression was a victory for a San Diego woman who was sued by two doctors after she posted an allegedly libelous email on two websites.

Concerned that a ruling against her would expose them also to liability, some of Internet’s biggest names — including, America Online Inc., eBay Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. — took her side.

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FREEDOM FIRST: Reversing an appellate court ruling, the Supreme Court said the Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides broad immunity from defamation lawsuits for people who publish information on the Internet gathered from another source.

“The prospect of blanket immunity for those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the Internet has disturbing implications,” Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote in the majority opinion. “Nevertheless… statutory immunity serves to protect online freedom of expression and to encourage self-regulation, as Congress intended.”

Unless Congress amends the law, those who claim they were defamed in an Internet posting can seek damages only from the original source of the statement, the court ruled.

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ACCESS UPHELD: The case stemmed from an opinion piece sent via email to Ilena Rosenthal, a woman’s health advocate who runs various message boards and promotes alternative medicine.

The scathing mail accused Dr. Terry Polevoy, of Canada, of stalking a Canadian radio producer and included various invectives directed at Polevoy and Dr. Stephen Barrett, of Pennsylvania. The two doctors operated Web sites devoted to exposing health frauds.

After Rosenthal posted the piece to two newsgroups, Polevoy and Barrett sued her, the email writer and others for libel. The lawsuit accuses Rosenthal of republishing the information after being warned it was false and defamatory.

The trial court ruled that Rosenthal’s actions were protected, but an appeals court decided she was not shielded from liability as a distributor of the information. The state Supreme Court’s ruling reversed that decision.

The Associated Press reported legal experts as saying that the ruling follows similar decisions in other states designed to protect free and open access to information.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 23, 2006)

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