National / Social Issues

Expert sees Japan's high level of digital rights offset by public disinclined to curb Big Brother

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Japan ranks among the most free and open countries in the world in terms of digital rights and Internet access.

Yet an increasing number of people, including a United Nations official, have recently warned that this high degree of technological freedom to disseminate one’s opinions and views is offset by growing concerns over official and unofficial restrictions on freedom of expression and fears that the Japanese public may not be inclined to aggressively defend such freedom.

In fact, the lack of eagerness on the part of citizens to defend their rights could give the government leeway to control more of their electronic communications in the name of cybersecurity, according to one expert.

When David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, wrapped up his Japan visit last month, he concluded that government policies like the state secrets act put pressure on individual journalists who are critical of the administration. He also said the country’s notorious press club system is a threat to freedom of expression.

At the same time, however, Kaye praised Japan in the area of digital rights.

“(Japan) has a high level of Internet penetration, and the government does not engage in content restrictions. The very low level of interference with digital freedoms illustrates the government’s commitment to freedom of expression,” Kaye said during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on April 19.

In its “Freedom on the Net 2015” report released in October, the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization Freedom House ranked Japan seventh worldwide for Internet freedom, out of 65 countries surveyed.

The report noted that Japan enjoyed a 91 percent Internet penetration rate as of 2014, that social media, political and social content were not blocked, and that no bloggers had been arrested.

“No direct political censorship has been documented in Japan,” the report said.

Industry experts say a major reason for the high ranking is that the laws regulating communications start with the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and the right to know, and its Article 21, which prohibits formal censorship.

“The Telecommunications Business Law says that ‘the secrecy of communications being handled by a telecommunications carrier shall not be violated.’ This covers an extremely wide range of ‘communications,'” said Toshiaki Tateishi of the Japan Internet Providers Association.

“Many of those in the telecommunications business, upon entering their firm, are drilled in the importance of guarding these secrets, so the level of awareness of the law in the telecommunications industry is extremely high,” he said.

Unlike other countries, there is no independent regulatory commission in Japan for the Internet. Instead, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications regulates the telecommunications, Internet and broadcast sectors, while various nongovernment groups, including the Japan Internet Providers Association, self-regulate not only the Internet but also television broadcasting.

Tateishi noted that the way Japan’s Internet system is set up is also a reason for the high Internet freedom ranking. NTT East and West, which have the largest number of cables in Japan, are barred by law from offering Internet services. From the late 1990s, when the Internet first began to spread, the number of Internet service providers went from several hundred to several thousand. Today, JIPA said it has information on between 700 and 800 ISP companies.

“On the other hand, the number of major cellphone providers is limited to three. So even without passing a law, a directive from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications will, in effect, place regulations upon the cellphone companies. In fact, a ministry directive has already led to putting filters on cellphones used by children,” he said.

But while the technological and legal barriers to going online in Japan are among the fewest in the world, attitudes about what to say once logged on may be more cautious.

A report released in November 2015 by the Washington D.C.-based Pew Research Center, “Global Support for Principle of Free Expression, but Opposition to Some Forms of Speech,” includes a survey of 1,000 Japanese.

Asked if they agree with the statement that “it’s very important that people can use the Internet without censorship in our country,” only 40 percent of Japanese respondents agreed. That figure was lower than responses in North America, Europe and Latin America, and within Asia. It was below Australia (53 percent) and South Korea (50 percent) as well. The global median was 50 percent.

The Pew study also found 57 percent of Japanese respondents agreed that “It’s very important that people can say what they want without censorship in our country.” That was less than in North America and six South American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela), but the same as Britain and Poland, and just above the global median of 56 percent.

Yet only 45 percent of the Japanese respondents agreed with the statement that “it’s very important that the media can report news without censorship in our country.” That was below other nations in Asia, North America, and all European and Latin American countries surveyed. It was also below Australia (57 percent), the Philippines (53 percent) and South Korea (52 percent). It was even below seven of eight African countries surveyed, and 10 percentage points below the global median of 55 percent.

Such surveys, whatever their limitations, raise concerns for their potential impact on government attitudes toward greater control of all electronic communications in the name of cybersecurity.

“As the (Japanese) government considers legislation related to wiretaps and new approaches to cybersecurity, I hope that the spirit of freedom, communication security and innovation online is kept at the forefront of regulatory efforts,” warned Kaye.