Inconvenient Society Resulting from the Overprotection of Personal Information

Senior Fellow, RIETI

What has been the hottest issue in the Japanese Internet industry this year? The answer is neither broadband nor the information technology slump, but an online message board called "Nichanneru (2ch)." Kazuhiko Nishi, the former president of ASCII Corp., who was infuriated by smear attacks at the 2ch message board over his resignation as an ASCII board member, has created "Icchanneru (1ch)" as an antithesis to "Nichanneru." In addition, the operator of the 2ch website was ordered by the court to pay a ¥4 million penalty over a lawsuit in which an animal hospital demanded the deletion of certain messages posted on the 2ch message board. As it appears, I am being treated as a celebrity on the 2ch website, having been subjected to a host of abusive words on its message board. At one time, I managed to identify the person who posted the ill messages against me. As it turned out, this person is a key member of a group campaigning against the introduction of the Basic Residential Register Network System (Juki Net). This leads one to wonder whether the protection of privacy as advocated in the group's anti-Juki Net campaign is meant to keep its individuals' identities a secret while writing negative things about others.

Damage Inflicted by Anonymous Written Attacks Likely to Spread

The electronic bulletin board system (BBS) itself is nothing new. Personal computer communications started with BBS networks and a BBS message board called Net News used to be a major content site in the initial stage of Internet communication. However, those PC communications had a designated manager for the message board, and Net News has been operating on the principle that all the messages be signed. As a message board without a manager, the 2ch website - which has hundreds of thousands of messages posted everyday - is probably the world's largest. Compared to Net News, however, the 2ch message board tends to be insidious and dark in nature, lacking useful information and serious debate and being full of irresponsible negative postings. Similarly, the engineer who maligned me on the 2ch message board also wanted to vent his anger after I criticized him through a certain mailing list communication.

Thus, 2ch has become a stress buster for cowards who do not have the courage to criticize someone without concealing their own identity. Rather than being a place for free speech, 2ch has become an outlet for the "inconvenient speech" of Japanese society. Net News initially served as a venue for scientists to post news in the academic community. Linkage to PC communications in the late 1990s and a subsequent rapid increase in the number of messages posted by non-scientists, however, resulted in the deterioration of the message board's average information quality, thereby discouraging people from posting valuable information and leading to a further deterioration in information quality. This vicious cycle has eventually caused adverse selection and today, Net News receives little attention. It is likely that the 2ch message board will trace the same footsteps as Net News, peaking in usage this year and then slipping into oblivion.

This kind of damage inflicted by anonymous messages will likely spread in various forms over the coming years. The concept of "speech for speech" applies only when both sides reveal their identity. In the case of Mr. Nishi, in which he has to fight against detractors who refuse to come out of their shelter of anonymity, his debate is not on an equal footing. Furthermore, 2ch can easily become a hotbed for criminal acts. For instance, it can be used for corporate extortion by posting a number of abusive messages about a certain company, with the offenders then demanding money to cease their activities. Or, the 2ch operator can get sponsors who demand money for the deletion of certain negative messages.

Damage Remedy Rather Than Excessive Privacy Protection

When problems arise, the Japanese government is inclined to implement laws with preventive measures. In the IT world, however, such laws often turn out to be excessive restrictions that do more harm than good. A bill to protect personal information, which is to be introduced at the next session of the Diet, stipulates that first-person consent must be obtained before passing personal information on to a third person or party. Should this regulation be strictly applied, Internet search engines would no longer be able to operate. The Basic Resident Register Law, meanwhile, prohibits the creation of a database that includes resident register code numbers (Article 30 - 43). Consequently, a company identifying its customers by resident register code numbers would be subject to administrative punishment, even though it contradicts the constitutional right of freedom of express. Excessive protection of personal information results in restricting people's actions and inconveniencing society.

Information about me is not necessarily mine. When I search for my name on the Internet, a list of more than 2,000 pieces of information is produced. I cannot, however, put all this information under my control. It also is both just and necessary for a financial institution to examine the credit record of its customers. Taking out an insurance policy by concealing one's clinical history would constitute a fraud. A democratic society does not provide the right to falsify one's personal information. The ongoing anti-Juki Net campaign - which is demanding the government provide 100 percent protection of privacy in the Basic Resident Register, a record accessible to anyone - symbolizes Japanese society's immaturity and inability to understand freedom of expression.

This does not mean, though, that the media are free to do anything under the name of "freedom of the press." Many members of the media demand that journalists be exempt from the proposed legislation on personal information protection. The same people who are demanding a full protection of privacy by the government are also calling for immunity for themselves in infringing upon other people's privacy. This is an appalling attitude of indulging in their privilege. Infringement of human rights by the 2ch message board looks modest when compared to human rights violations by the media. If simply proclaiming themselves to be journalists prevents regulatory authorities from holding them accountable for their reports, it would be tantamount to shutting the door to any remedy for those whose human rights were infringed by the media.

The problem is not the leakage of personal information itself, but the misuse of leaked personal information, such as discrimination based on this leaked information and the misplacement of names on a black list. Restricting the flow of information provides no answer to this issue. What is necessary is the provision of remedy measures and the prevention of personal information abuse by holding perpetrators liable for their damages and making them pay reparations. For this, no new legislation is necessary. Instead, an agile and cost-efficient dispute settlement system must be implemented. Japanese court procedures, as they stand today, are too time consuming and costly. It is thus necessary to create an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) system. The government should change its mindset from overly restricting personal information to facilitating the free flow of information and preventing possible damages from its misuse.

September 10, 2002

September 10, 2002