A government panel is now fleshing out a blueprint for basic legislation designed to protect personal information held by public and private organizations — information that makes it possible to identify the individuals involved, such as depositors lists held by banks. It is, in principle, necessary to safeguard such personal information. But regulations should be kept within reasonable bounds, particularly for private organizations. Safeguards that are too stringent or detailed could undermine freedom of expression.

The panel is advised to respect the voluntary restraints being exercised by the media, such as newspapers and television networks, and make sure that public authorities do not meddle with reporting activities. Personal information held by the media for “reporting purposes” should be excluded from the proposed legislation.

The draft outline, announced in June, sets five principles. One, information should be used for explicit purposes and only to the necessary extent. Two, accuracy of information should be maintained. Three, information should be obtained by proper methods. Four, it should be used only after appropriate safeguards are taken. And five, individuals involved should be able to know how their information is used.

Based on these principles, the panel calls on the government to review laws now in force for the public sector and establish new ones for selected types of information that “require particularly strict protection.” The current law for protecting personal information admittedly has many flaws. Not only does it cover only electronic files maintained by administrative agencies, but individuals have no right to request corrections.

Plans now in the works call for special protection for personal credit information held by banks and other financial institutions; medical information held by hospitals and other medical institutions; and electronic information in the hands of NTT and other communications companies. These types of information are particularly liable to misuse and therefore require prompt legislative action.

The draft outline lists 11 cases in which private organizations should take “necessary measures voluntarily.” For example, individuals involved must be informed about specific uses of their information. Also, when personal information is given to a third party, in principle the consent of the person involved must be obtained.

Some of these five principles and 11 rules are open to question because, given that they are legally binding, they could create problems on the part of users. Take academic research, or reporting and publishing — areas in which third-person information is indispensable. Privacy must be respected, but information on a bribery case, for instance, is another matter. Fair and accurate reporting will become impossible if reporters must tell the politician involved in advance why they are going to use certain information or must obtain his consent for using that particular information.

The way to protect personal information is to use voluntary restraint, not regulatory power, on a selective basis. Even if regulation is required, it should be addressed under select laws, not under catch-all legislation now being considered.

In either case, media-held personal information should be excluded. The media must use such information carefully to avoid unnecessary exposure of privacy. We must exercise self-discipline and, promptly redress all damage caused by reporting.

The proposed legislation is far too stringent compared with that in the European Union and the United States. Generally, the EU takes the regulatory approach, with exceptions for journalism and art. The U.S. has selective regulations that exclude reporting and publishing.

The panel expects to wind up its work in September so that the government can send a bill to the Diet early next year. The draft, however, leaves many stones unturned, including the handling of media-held information. How to redress damage from misuse of information, whether to penalize leaks, and whether to set up a grievance and dispute-settlement body are some of the other questions that require further discussion. Regarding grievance settlement, the panel says the government would be able to conduct the “necessary investigations.” But this could open the way for undue government intervention.

It is not easy to pursue freedom of expression while protecting personal information. But the media must live up to its responsibilities. The panel should do its utmost to make sure that legislation now in the works does not restrict reporting to the detriment of the public interest.

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