The intentions behind the Personal Information Protection Law, which went into effect in April 2005, are good, but it has contributed to a tendency for organizations to withhold benign information that has significantly useful social value. Ms. Mizuho Fukushima, state minister in charge of consumer affairs, who has jurisdiction over the law, has rightfully called on the consumers’ committee associated with the agency to review the law.
The law, in principle, bars organizations that possess or handle personal information from providing it to third parties without the consent of the people concerned. But for various reasons — misunderstandings of the law, an overly cautious attitude or a desire to use the law to censor information — it has become extremely difficult to obtain personal data for relevant social reasons.
For example, the police often refuse to disclose the names of crime victims to the media, making it hard for the media to ascertain the accuracy of police allegations. Sometimes government ministries withhold the names of people who have passed state qualifying examinations and the career records of high-ranking bureaucrats. After the April 25, 2005, West Japan Railway accident in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, which killed 107 people and injured 562 others, hospitals refused to answer inquiries from people who contacted them to check if their relatives or friends might have been hospitalized.
It is now extremely difficult for schools to distribute a list of emergency contact numbers among parents. Local governments often refuse to give relevant information to community groups that want to help the elderly and infirm in the event of natural disasters.
The consumers’ committee should strive to strike a balance between protection of personal information and its justifiable dissemination for social reasons. It also should pay close attention to freedom of the press and academic freedom, two areas that are often negatively impacted by the dubious “protection” of personal information.