A recent breakdown in talks at a government panel of experts discussing measures against websites that pirate manga and anime highlights the sensitivities over the government’s plan to legalize the blocking of access to piracy websites — a step that proponents say is crucial to protecting the interests of copyright holders, but opponents charge could violate the “secrecy of communication” guaranteed under the Constitution. Given the serious concerns raised over the blocking measure, the government should not rush forward with its plan but instead explore other steps that can effectively combat the piracy websites.

A surge in online piracy of manga and anime content since last year — with the value of the copyright infringements estimated to range from tens to hundreds of billions of yen — prompted the government in April to take action against three particularly malicious piracy websites that provided viewers with free manga and anime content without obtaining the consent of or paying royalties to the copyright holders. In an “emergency” measure, the Cabinet Office urged internet service providers (ISPs) to voluntarily block access to the three websites. Aiming to take legislative steps in the Diet next year to back up such a measure, in June it launched the panel including representatives from the publishing and communications industries as well as legal experts to discuss the matter.

Noting that the piracy websites threaten the survival of the manga business, panel members from the publishing industry called the blocking measure a key tool to stop copyright infringement. Some lawyers and members of the communications industry, however, raised concern that the blocking measure, which requires ISPs to monitor users to see what websites they’re visiting and block their access to certain sites, could infringe on the constitutional right of secrecy of communication.

Article 21 of the Constitution says, “No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.” The secrecy covers not just the content of people’s telephone conversations, letters and online communication, but also information regarding who communicated with whom, when and from where to where. The freedom to communicate with others in such a manner is deemed to be a basic human right. Opponents on the panel said the blocking measure sought by the government could threaten that right.

Discussions at the panel went nowhere as the gap between the proponents of the measure and the opponents could not be narrowed. In an unusual move, the panel gave up compiling a midterm report on their discussions that was due this month, and the panel’s next meeting was indefinitely postponed.

Currently, internet service providers voluntarily block access to certain child pornography websites — as an emergency measure to protect children. There is concern, however, that expanding the scope of such a measure to other areas could result in threatening freedom of expression and that legalizing the blocking measure might lead to attempts to apply the measure on the grounds of libel or privacy violations — for example, to restrict access to websites carrying information about wrongdoing or scandals involving politicians and bureaucrats. The Internet Content Safety Association, consisting of ISPs and IT firms, said the blocking tactics could be used for the censorship of information such as anti-government protests.

The stalemate in the talks at the government panel is an indicator of the serious questions surrounding the issue, and further careful discussions will be required. In the meantime, the government should explore and proceed with other effective means of combating the piracy websites. Blocking access to individual websites may not resolve the problem. Although the “malicious” piracy websites were apparently shut down, there are reportedly large numbers of smaller copycat websites that are similarly violating the copyrights of the content creators.

One potential solution is said to be regulating the so-called leech sites, which aggregate links to illegal copies of manga, music, videos and other files uploaded to other websites. The copyright law bans the uploading of illegal copies, but leech sites, which lead internet users to the piracy websites, reportedly claim that they are not violating the law since they neither upload the files themselves nor have the illegal copies on their servers. What to do about the advertisements that run on the piracy websites, which generate the revenue that finances their operation, will be another area that should be explored.

The government can start with legal steps to crack down on the leech sites, along with other measures such as repeated public warnings against accessing the piracy websites, and then verify the effects of the measures in combating the problem.

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