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Election campaigning takes to Net

New law opens Web to candidates, voters ahead of Upper House poll

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Japan is finally dropping restrictions on the use of the Internet as an election campaign tool in a first step toward sweeping changes to the outdated Public Offices Election law before the Upper House poll slated for July.

Amid mounting pressure from tech-savvy lawmakers and voters who demand more robust online political discussions during campaigns, the Lower House on Friday is slated to pass a ruling coalition-sponsored bill to allow political parties and candidates, as well as voters, to harness the Internet during campaigns.

This deregulation will test whether the Internet can invigorate political discourse through more comprehensive and open discussions on the Web, which lawmakers hope will lead to higher voter turnouts.

“Television news tends to focus on one issue and they set the election agenda,” said Kan Suzuki, a House of Councilors lawmaker from the Democratic Party of Japan. “With the Internet, voters can push for issues that are important to them.”

Counter to its reputation as a tech- and Internet-savvy country, with about an 80 percent Internet penetration rate in 2010, Japan is one of the few countries that bans online election campaigning. The Public Offices Election law of 1950 did not foresee the advent of the Internet, let alone its power to mobilize people.

The law sets rules for political campaigns, including the number of documents, such as campaign posters, to level the playing field so that elections won’t favor the wealthier. The Internet has been banned as it is considered a kind of document.

“It is a great breakthrough that we can use the Internet,” said Takeshi Natsuno, a professor at Keio University and a developer of i-mode, a pioneering cellphone Internet service from NTT DoCoMo. “The biggest reason for our lost 20 years is that politics in Japan was not keeping up with the global IT revolution.”

Two bills have been submitted to the Diet: one by the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition and the other sponsored by Your Party and the DPJ.

Both bills would enable candidates to use the Internet in campaigns, including blogs and social-networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, during the 12-day campaign period for Upper House polls and 17-day campaign for those of the Lower House.

Lawmakers say the law will allow candidates to rebut negative comments against them via the Internet, and save money, which is especially helpful to candidates who lack powerful election machines. It will also give more information on each candidate’s campaign pledges and scrutinize the viability of their statements through discussions.

The biggest concern is how to prevent libel through identity theft. Someone with malicious intent could pretend to be a candidate and disseminate harmful and baseless statements on the Internet to disadvantage the candidate.

To prevent this, the LDP plan only permits political parties and candidates to send emails soliciting support and requires them to include contact information, while the original DPJ-Your Party plan called for giving voters, in addition to parties and candidates, the right to send out emails in support of candidates.

However, the two camps recently struck a deal to shelve the email issue for voters and agreed to discuss the matter after the Upper House election.

Advocates for limited deregulation say voters could face trouble if they fail to fully understand the new rules. Under guidelines proposed by the coalition, an offender faces penalties from two years in prison and up to ¥500,000 in fines, while a malicious offender could be stripped of the right to vote or run for public office.

“Unless the general public understands the charges, voters who send emails without understanding the rules could face serious charges,” said campaign planner Hiroshi Miura during a Lower House election law reform committee meeting last week.

The LDP-New Komeito plan, however, has loopholes. The bill does not cover the messaging systems on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. While voters cannot send emails, they can still call for support or even launch a negative campaign via SNS.

“Facebook and Twitter messaging is allowed, while email is banned. It is really hard to understand the logic,” said Natsuno at the Lower House committee meeting. “It benefits the public if there are robust discussions using information technology.”

To prevent abuses, Internet providers can also delete misinformation reported to the provider by a candidate. If the provider does not hear from the person who posted harmful comments in two days — current law stipulates seven days — the post can be deleted. However, if the person responds and refuses to erase the post, the provider can’t do anything about it.

Web service companies, such as GMO Global Sign, also offer a certification system, while a social media company called GaiaX offers services to monitor libel or slander on the Internet.

Both the ruling and opposition camps hope to turn deregulation to their advantage by increasing voter turnout, especially among youths.

In the general election in December, which the LDP won by a landslide, the highest voter turnout was among people in their 60s, at 84 percent, while only 49 percent of eligible voters in their 20s cast ballots.

Critics say it will take time to forge an effective online campaign culture in Japan similar to what exists in the U.S. In the 2008 election, President Barack Obama wooed young voters with his slick grassroots online strategies and amassed almost $69 million in contributions via the Internet.

Yet a 2012 poll by Lifenet Insurance Co. found only 8 percent of 1,000 respondents in Japan said they’d be willing to donate money via the Web.

“In the long run, it would be hard to avoid the impact of this new realm or new channel to reach new constituents, but I did not think it will happen right away,” said Emmy Suzuki Harris, director of a petition platform called Change.org who helped Obama’s ’08 campaign. “There were backgrounds many years before the Obama campaign came and blew it up. It came on like a long 10- to 15-year history of people using the Web in the state-based election.”

The critical question is whether online campaigning will resonate with the Japanese election tradition.

Japanese voters, especially older people in rural areas, prefer face-to-face interaction and handshaking. Some lawmakers might choose not to embrace the Internet during the campaign.

“The Internet is suited for wide-area campaigns. In single-seat constituencies, candidates who meet face-to-face with voters will have a better chance of winning them over,” said Takuya Hirai, a Lower House lawmaker who serves as the director of LDP Internet Media Bureau. “Proportional representation candidates might benefit from the online campaign in the Upper House election.”

The digital divide is also going to be a touchstone for lawmakers.

Kota Otani, editor in chief of a blog site called Blogos, which aggregates about 200 to 250 lawmakers’ blogs, said only a handful regularly update their blogs.

“There is some reluctance to actually writing instead of talking, because something written could become a target of criticism,” said Otani. “But at the same time, this deregulation will test what kind of online campaigns work and those that don’t.”

Deregulation of online campaigning

The main points of the ruling coalition’s bill on online campaigning:

▪ Political parties and their candidates, as well as regular voters, can launch election campaigns via the Internet, for instance by updating their blogs, home pages and social-networking services, including Facebook and Twitter.

▪ Only political parties and candidates can send emails to solicit votes or launch negative campaigns via email. However, the senders have to insert notification that the email is intended for electioneering, include their names and allow recipients to reject such messages.

▪ Those found to be in violation of the new regulations could face a one-year prison sentence and a maximum ¥300,000 fine. If they face imprisonment, they could be stripped of the right to run for public office and even to vote.

▪ If members of the electorate or voter groups send emails to solicit votes for certain candidates, they will face a two-year prison term and maximum ¥500,000 fine and could also be stripped of the right to vote or run for public office.

▪ Only political parties can put paid advertising on the Web. Candidates and voters are prohibited from doing so.

▪ Candidates can demonstrate their gratitude to voters via the Internet after the election.

▪ Internet providers can delete slanderous comments if notified by the candidates targeted and the offending party fails to get in touch with them within two days of receiving notification.