Police have turned over to prosecutors their case against Hiroyuki Nishimura, founder of the popular 2channel Internet bulletin board, on suspicion he “abetted” drug dealing.
The cybercrime unit of the Metropolitan Police Department alleges that allowing posts about trade in amphetamines and other drugs to remain on the board constituted abetment, but the police action, which occurred Thursday, has drawn mixed responses from experts ranging from endorsement to skepticism.
With the action against the forum founder, some within the law-enforcement community fear investigators may lose access to important background information from the bulletin board, which is often used by perpetrators to post details about criminal actions or to claim responsibility for them.
Nishimura, 36, opened 2channel in 1999, offering forums on a broad range of topics, from current affairs, hobbies, highly academic themes to “tonight’s side dishes,” according to the site’s top page.
The cyberboard, often referred to by the abbreviation 2ch, has grown into one of the largest of its kind and was initially managed by Nishimura using his online handle “Hiroyuki.”
Since a majority of posts are anonymous, critics have said they can be used to defame other people or to engage in other criminal acts.
The MPD’s cybercrime unit passed the dossier on Nishimura to the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office, alleging the founder ran the bulletin board knowing many posts about illegal drug trade were made but without removing them.
Specifically, Nishimura is suspected of “abetting” a 55-year-old unemployed man whose post was a solicitation for trade in amphetamine in May last year. The man has been found guilty of violating the narcotic drug special cases law.
In 2009, Nishimura said on his blog he sold the 2ch business to a company in Singapore and pulled out of its management. But the MPD determined that he remains involved in the operation, because he receives advertising revenues.
The police also said he was consulted by staff by email about handling posts that were subject to requests for deletion.
Since last year, the police have searched his home and related locations in connection with the drug trade case. Nishimura has not responded to police calls for questioning.
The police, meanwhile, decided against arresting him after some improvement was seen in running of the board, including the active deletion of questionable posts upon request.
Regarding police criticism that a large number of deletion requests were left unattended, Nishimura said on his blog, “Police made two deletion requests and deletions were made.”
He also said, “Unless (a post) is judged illegal by the judicial authorities, it is legal.”
Police were apparently concerned about a large number of posts containing what they believe was illegal information.
The Internet Hotline Center, which acts on behalf of the National Police Agency in making deletion requests, made 5,223 requests to 2ch to remove posts last year, but 97 percent went undeleted, according to the agency.
Nishimura said in the blog about this result the IHC “delivered requests to delete information that could be legal, and they were simply not met.”
As its popularity grew, 2ch started receiving posts about bomb threats with specific targets, murder warnings or other criminal actions. In order for police to press charges against those who made threats, Nishimura’s cooperation was seen as indispensable, as he was in charge of communications logs.
Within the MPD, sources say there were conflicting opinions about handling Nishimura. Some said he should be let go and his cooperation in investigations encouraged, while others said he should be arrested, according to the sources.
An investigator even became personally close with Nishimura and received information from him, according to the sources. In November last year, however, the MPD set up a task force and decided to press charges against Nishimura.
Professor Hisashi Sonoda, an expert in criminal code and information law at Konan Law School, said law-enforcement action against Internet site operators “has been extremely rare, limited only to when the person himself was actively involved in the crime.”
“Seeking the responsibility of the one providing a bulletin board is a step too far, and it is not a desirable trend,” he said.
Masashi Yasukawa, head of the private National Web Counseling Council, was critical of 2ch for upholding the “freedom of expression” argument for not beefing up monitors on posts, while other sites were stepping up measures by listing potentially problematic words or expressions or increasing monitoring.
“It’s not about freedom when it comes to illegal posts,” Yasukawa said. “They deserve rigorous police action. We can also expect its impact on other similarly malicious sites.”
There are believed to be around 30 to 40 people at 2ch who are tasked with deleting posts when requests are filed.
Lawyer Hisamichi Okamura, versed in Net-related legal issues, said, “2channel has become more responsive to deletion requests, so the objective of the investigation has been achieved somewhat. But charging the site operator with abetment could result in discouraging information exchanges on the Net. Caution should be exercised.”
He also added, “I can also sense 2channel having almost served its usefulness now that we have microblogs (such as Twitter) and video posting sites. I can’t help but feel the investigation may have come too late.”