A government-sponsored bill to protect personal information, which critics fear would threaten freedom of the press, is more likely aimed at protecting bureaucrats rather than individual members of the public, according to a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who has openly criticized the legislation.
“Scandals by bureaucrats have often been revealed by whistle-blowers within their ministries who leaked internal documents (to the media),” Yoshihide Sakaue told The Japan Times. “That is what bureaucrats want to prevent.”
On April 26, Sakaue, a 54-year-old Lower House member from Hyogo Prefecture, resigned from the Lower House Cabinet Committee when senior members of the LDP appeared to be denying him a chance to speak up in the committee because of his stated opposition to the controversial bill.
As a Cabinet Committee member of the ruling coalition parties, Sakaue was supposed to support the legislation to ensure its swift passage.
“If I could not ask critical questions, I thought it better to simply resign from the post and focus on the activities of a nonpartisan group of lawmakers opposed to the legislation,” he said.
The personal information protection bill, which is currently being deliberated in the Lower House Cabinet Committee, would require those handling personal information to clarify the purpose of their use of the information, obtain the information in an appropriate manner, ensure its accuracy, prevent it from leaking and make sure that the subject of the information is properly involved in its handling.
Media organizations have protested that such requirements could force reporters to disclose their sources, discourage the sources from speaking in the first place, and allow politicians and bureaucrats to meddle unfairly in news reporting.
Sakaue pointed out that the personal information bill is deeply linked to two other pieces of legislation — a 1999 resident-numbering system law aimed at assigning an 11-digit identification code to every Japanese resident, along with a human rights bill now in the Diet.
Government officials say the personal information bill and human rights bill were drawn up to protect people’s privacy — privacy that could be intruded upon as a result of introducing the numbering system.
This computerized system, which goes into effect in August, is intended to simplify municipalities’ work by making identification easier, tying together data on a person’s name, sex, address and date of birth.
But Sakaue warns that the numbering system will lead Japan to become a more centralized state, giving greater power to bureaucrats. “Japan may become a nation controlled by bureaucrats, like during the prewar and wartime era” when the military had strong power, he said.
“It is a long-cherished desire for every government ministry to create a centralized system of managing information that relates to matters under its jurisdiction,” he said, citing plans by the health ministry to create such a system for insurance and pension programs, as well as the Finance Ministry’s taxpayer numbering scheme.
Sakaue said, however, that putting everyone’s data in one centralized system is not a good idea in terms of protecting individuals personal information. Even Japan’s state-of-the-art technology will not shield the government’s computer system from hackers, he said, noting that the trend in many Western nations is to avoid concentrating various information in one system as a precaution against this sort of attack.
Sakaue is urging the government and the ruling coalition to put the bill on hold for about three years so he and others opposed to the legislation can draw up a comprehensive counterproposal.
“The legislation is not only about the media,” he said. “It involves the lives of everyone.”
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