National

Cyberbullying regulation in Japan could have a chilling effect

Experts warn that ability to identify source of online abuse might silence potential whistleblowers

Jiji, Kyodo

The public and private sectors are both moving to toughen regulations on abusive online posts after the death of professional wrestler and reality show personality Hana Kimura, but experts warn the push could lead to censorship.

The government and the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition have started work to create a system to prevent ill-intentioned online posts, while the social media industry is trying to strengthen its rules.

But experts warn that excessive regulation could endanger freedom of expression.

Kimura, a cast member of the “Terrace House” television show, met with many abusive comments on social media especially after her appearance in the show in late March.

Following her death on May 23, many people including celebrities and politicians are becoming more and more critical of abusive speech online.

“Anonymously slandering others is mean and unforgivable,” communications minister Sanae Takaichi told a news conference last week.

The communications ministry will consider measures to make it easier to identify those who post abusive social media remarks in conjunction with a panel that was set up in April.

Under a law on internet service providers, victims whose rights are infringed through anonymous online comments can ask the operators of the SNS services where the comments were posted to disclose information on those who posted them.

If the providers refuse, further action will require that lawsuits be filed against the providers.

Even if accusers win and receive the posters’ IP addresses and other information, they would then need to ask for them to disclose the names and mail addresses of the people who made the comments in question.

Depending on the response from the providers, fresh litigation would have to be started.

Furthermore, it is difficult in many cases to establish criminal responsibility in these cases, experts say.

“It may take at least nine months to identify those who made such comments, and the total process including litigation may require as long as two years,” lawyer Mayumi Matsushita said. “Victims bear very heavy burdens.”

The communications ministry panel will discuss measures to make it easier for targets of online slander to obtain information on their attackers without resorting to litigation. It hopes the measures will be worked out by November so that a revision to the law can be enacted in 2021.

At some parties including the LDP, politicians are starting to prepare a bill to strengthen penalties for online slander or place restrictions on making abusive comments on social media.

But experts are concerned that excessive regulation will lead to censorship issues involving the valid criticism of politicians and companies.

Whistle-blowers can fully play their role because they can remain anonymous if they want, experts say. But imposing new regulations could put society at a disadvantage if they put a brake on activities involving self-expression.

“An orthodox way is to resolve each dispute by having the parties concerned discuss what is slander and what is not,” lawyer Yuichi Nakazawa said.

“If authorities intervene further, free discussion will be stifled,” said Nakazawa, who advises clients on how to fight negative rumors that are spread online.

The social media industry is also taking action.

Yahoo Japan Corp. said Monday it will provide social media firms with artificial intelligence technology that can detect abusive and other inappropriate online posts in light of Kimura’s death.

Yahoo said that of the 290,000 or so comments posted daily on its news portal, it deletes around 20,000 that its AI technology deems abusive or lacking correlation with a story’s content. Yahoo Japan, the nation’s biggest internet bulletin board operator, says it deletes malicious posts as soon as it finds them.

“Following recent reports on an extremely tragic incident, Yahoo Japan will further strengthen countermeasures” for the safe use of its services, the company said in a statement.

An emergency statement was also issued last week by an industry group known as SMAJ, whose members include Line Corp. and a Japanese unit of U.S. social media giant Facebook Inc.

The statement said the members will ban users from posting messages intended to defame or insult others and stop the use of their services by violators.

Meanwhile, an official of a major internet service provider said the company does not take any special steps because it think users will leave if the rules get too strict.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5772-0992. You can also visit them at telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

Coronavirus banner