The new privacy legislation prepared by the government — a replacement for a similar measure that died in last year’s Diet session — represents a step forward. The improved version leaves out, among other things, rules that would unreasonably restrict the media handling of personal information. It excludes media organizations, as well as individual reporters and journalists, from the proposed regulatory and punitive provisions.

The new bill, which incorporates changes proposed by the ruling coalition, is expected to reach the Diet floor next month. The government wants to have it voted into law during the current regular session, which is scheduled to end in late June. The going will not be smooth, however, in part because some of the previously proposed provisions have been retained. The possibility remains that the government might tighten its grip on certain organizations such as citizens groups.

The latest privacy protection bill has three main features. First, the five “basic principles” included in the aborted bill — such as the one limiting the use of information by purpose — have been removed. The media has objected to the inclusion of these restrictive guidelines, and with good reason. For example, a reporter trying to interview a person involved in a bribery scandal would have been required, in an extreme case, to tell the person how information would be used.

In this and other respects, the new bill reflects a degree of sympathy toward the media. The “basic idea” — which supersedes the basic principles — says personal information “must be properly handled.”

Second, the authority of the state minister in charge to issue recommendations and orders concerning the handling of personal information has been weakened. The minister, says the new proposal, “must not obstruct” freedoms of expression, learning, religion and political activity. The old version left room for action to restrict these freedoms.

Third, punitive regulations have been dropped also for “individuals engaged in the business of reporting.” The old bill had excluded media organizations, academic and research institutions, religious bodies and political groups. It is welcome that writers and freelance journalists also have been excluded.

Along with the new privacy bill, the government is seeking Diet approval for a revision to a related bill designed to protect personal data held by central government offices. The revision bill says employees with administrative agencies who give files on confidential personal data to third parties without justifiable reason would be punished either by imprisonment or a fine.

This is a necessary revision in light of recent revelations about data leaks by public officials, such as last year’s case involving the Defense Agency. But concerns remain. For one thing, government offices would be allowed not only to collect sensitive data, such as medical records and political orientations, but also to use such information for unspecified purposes. Many people are also worried that without tight legal safeguards the new national data base on resident registrations might be abused. The Diet should conduct a detailed debate to plug any loopholes that might lead to the misuse of government-held personal data.

There are additional concerns about the new privacy bill. For example, practicing lawyers might have reason to worry about possible government meddling because the Japan Federation of Bar Associations would come under the control of the state minister in charge. There is also the possibility that activities of nonprofit organizations might be restricted.

Originally the bill was conceived as catch-all legislation covering all fields of activity. That is why the five basic principles were formulated; the other four principles called for the proper acquisition of information and for the securing of accuracy, safety and transparency in its use. Those rules were generally sound, except in certain cases involving media and other organizations.

Now that those guideposts have been scrapped, the new bill would hardly serve the purpose of basic legislation. Moreover, with a host of exceptions thrown in, it would be difficult to provide across-the-board regulatory protection for personal information — an idea proposed in the original bill. The new bill, therefore, needs to be examined from the ground up, even though it has some welcome features.

There is one other idea that merits consideration: creating a regulatory system on a sector-by-sector basis. In the United States, for example, special statutes are established in areas such as finance, communications and health care. The Diet should not exclude such an alternative.

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