After police took a junior high school student into custody earlier this month in the July 1 slaying of a 4-year-old boy in Nagasaki, a raft of information appeared on the Internet about the 12-year-old suspect — in the face of a general ban on the media divulging data on minors involved in crimes.

The most popular message board on the Web site Ni-channeru (Channel 2) has been filled with messages revealing what they claim to be personal information about the student, including his name, address, the name of his school and information on his school record.

More maliciously, photographs purported to be of the boy have been posted on various Web sites and circulated in several e-mail magazines.

One of the most popular of them, Cybazzi, for example, offered an 87,000 yen reward for a genuine photograph of the suspect.

Cybazzi’s operator said photos of some 20 different boys have been posted on the Internet that were supposedly of the boy.

Cyberspace has become a prime venue for infringements on privacy and defamation, and crime suspects, just like celebrities, are fair game.

Juvenile offenders are no exception. Whenever a high-profile crime occurs involving a minor, information purportedly about the offender appears, some of it deemed accurate and some bogus.

A 14-year-old junior high school youth’s notorious 1997 slaying and decapitation of a 12-year-old boy in Kobe and murder of a 10-year-old girl, and the 2000 deadly bus hijacking in Fukuoka by a 17-year-old boy, were both followed by information leaks about the suspects on the Internet.

The Juvenile Law bans “newspapers or other media publications” from disclosing personal information on minors suspected or convicted of committing crimes. TV and radio broadcasters also uphold the ban.

But there are no penalties prescribed for revealing such illegal information on any medium, including the Internet, and no judicial precedent for including cyberspace in the ban.

The Justice Ministry’s Civil Liberties Bureau recently asked Ni-channeru to remove more than 500 messages from its Web site that purportedly included personal information on the student held in the Nagasaki slaying.

But ministry officials said only a portion of the messages have been deleted, while new messages keep flowing onto the site.

“Regulating such messages infringes on the constitutional freedom of speech, and so our only option is to ask the Web site operators to remove the messages,” a ministry official said. “In other words, we have to rely on the Web site operators’ and message senders’ sense of ethics.”

The ministry said Web sites that violate privacy and contain harassing, defamatory and discriminatory content have surged in recent years. Last year alone, it asked site operators to delete such content on 75 occasions.

Raita Busujima, who operates Cybazzi, claims that the e-mail magazine discloses personal information only after thoroughly examining each case and the possible impact of its reporting. He said a valid photo of the Nagasaki suspect was received Friday and was featured in Cybazzi’s member-only e-mail magazine.

“The fact that Ni-channeru and Cybazzi have survived to date proves that our decisions on whether to disclose such information have been right. It certainly reflects public sentiment,” Busujima said, suggesting that revealing personal information about minors accused of committing crimes serves the public interest.

“Any kind of media business can potentially infringe on human rights. There are (social) merits and demerits to every type of reporting, and it is impossible to judge which is right,” he said.

Crime suspects, however, are not the only people whose personal information is subject to abuse.

Last year, 13 people filed a damages suit against the major beauty salon chain TBC over the firm’s alleged mishandling of personal information over the Internet in May 2002.

At the time, personal information on about 50,000 people, including name, age and address, was accidentally leaked via the chain’s Web site, reportedly because of an inadequate security system.

The leak was not just a mistake by the company but also the result of a note placed on an Internet message board with instructions on how to access the data, including vital statistics on about 100 beauty contest applicants.

Although the site was shut down within four hours, the information downloaded before then kept finding its way onto the Internet more than a year after the incident, a TBC spokesman said. The firm still detects such information and asks each source to voluntarily delete the data.

Lawyer Masaki Kito, who represents plaintiffs in the ongoing suit against TBC, pointed out difficulties associated with litigation involving disclosure of personal information on the Internet.

The anonymity of the Net, especially message boards, hinders attempts by victims to secure damages.

Unlike defamation, whose nature is clearly recognizable, the disclosure of personal information does not necessarily constitute a crime, because the parameters of individual privacy are not clearly defined, Kito said.

Also, damages associated with personal information leaks are often caused by a third party abusing such information for commercial gain or harassment, not directly by the party that actually leaked the information.

In general, the only recourse available to people whose privacy has been violated is to sue for compensation. But in the case of the Internet, it is virtually impossible for victims to clearly identify the culprit, Kito said.

Victims have a better chance of winning damages in defamation cases.

The Tokyo District Court ordered Ni-channeru to pay 4 million yen to one party it defamed last year and 1 million yen to another.

“The corporate responsibility was relatively clear in the TBC case, but it is impossible to identify the culprits who leak personal information on Internet message boards,” Kito said. “Banning such message boards may be the only way to prevent such leaks, but that would simply be impossible.”

The cyber age has added new threats to privacy that, according to Kito, may ultimately lead society to resign itself to the impossibility of being able to fully protect personal information.

People whose privacy has been violated, for example, may feel they have no other option but to change their registered names, he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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