With little fanfare from local or foreign media, the Japanese government made major moves this month toward legislating extensive regulation over online communication and information exchange within its national borders.
In a series of little-publicized meetings attracting minimal mainstream coverage, two distinct government ministries, that of Internal Affairs and Communications (Somusho) and that of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (Monbukagakusho),
pushed ahead with regulation in three major areas of online communication: web content, mobile phone access, and file sharing.
The future of online communication within Japan hinges on attracting attention to these issues and on drawing as wide a range of voices into the debate as possible. While current activism by groups within Japan such as the recently formed Movements for
Internet Active Users (MIAU) have made important first steps in this direction, international attention is needed to coordinate support and confront the many pressing issues facing open communication in the Japanese cyberspace.
Plans for regulation of web content are summarized in two primary documents drawn up by the “Study group on the legal system for communications and broadcasting” under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (Somusho). The first document is
an interim report released on June 19th, setting down basic guidelines for regulating web content through application of the existing Broadcast Law to the sphere of the Internet. The final report, made public on December 6th, sets down steps to move
ahead and submit a bill on the proposed regulations to the regular diet session in 2010.
One of the key points of both reports is their emphasis on the blurring line between "information transmission" and "broadcasting", a distinction that becomes less and less meaningful as content-transfer shifts from the realm of
traditional media to that of ubiquitous digital communication. The reports deal with this difficult problem in part through the creation of a new category, that of "open communication", broadly described as covering communication content
having openness such as homepages and so on.
Online content judged to be "harmful" according to standards set down by an independent body (specifics of which are unclear) will be subject to law-enforced removal and/or correction.
Mobile phone access
The push for protecting young users from potentially dangerous content, such as online dating services and so-called "mobile filth", has gained momentum in recent years within Japan. The government responded to such concerns on December 10th by
demanding that mobile carriers NTT Docomo, KDDI, Softbank, and Willcom implement filtering on all mobile phones issued to users under the age of 18. While optional filtering currently exists and can be implemented at the request of the mobile phone
owner, few users make use of or even know of this service. The proposed regulation would heavily strengthen earlier policy by making filtering on mobile phones the default setting for minors; only in the case of an explicit request by the user's parent
or guardian could such filtering be turned off by the carrier.
According to the new policy proposal, sites would be categorized on two lists, a "blacklist" of sites that would be blocked from mobile access by minors and a "whitelist" of sites that would not. The categorization of sites into each
list will reportedly be carried out together with carriers through investigations involving each company targeted. The Telecommunications Carriers Association (TCA) of Japan is indicating that the new policy will be enforced with respect to new users by
the end of 2007 and applied to existing users by the summer of 2008.
While it is not yet entirely clear what content will be covered by the new policy, a look at existing filtering services promoted by NTT Docomo reveals the definition of "harmful" content to be very broad indeed. As noted by a number of
Japanese bloggers, notably social activist Sakiyama Nobuo, current optional filtering services offered on NTT Docomo phones include categories as sweeping as "lifestyles" (gay, lesbian, etc.), "religion", and "political
activity/party", as well as a category termed "communication" covering web forums, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and social networking services. The breadth of this last category in particular threatens to bankrupt youth-oriented services
such as "Mobage", a social networking and gaming site for mobile phones, half of whose users are under the age of 18.
In a meeting held on December 18th. Authorities and organizations pushed for a ban on the download of copyrighted content for personal use, a category of file transfer previously permitted under Article 30 of Japan's Copyright Law.
A Japanese government panel is proposing to govern influential, widely read news-related sites as newspapers and broadcasting are now regulated.
The government is also seeking to rein in some of the more unsavory aspects of the Internet, leaving in its wake, critics say, the censoring hand of government interference.
The panel, set up by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, said ISPs should be answerable for breaches of vaguer minimum regulations to guard against illegal and harmful content.
The conservative government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, is seeking to have the new laws passed by Parliament in 2010.
Japan's Internet is increasing its clout, so naturally the government wants to control it, said Kazuo Hizumi, a former journalist who is the Tokyo city lawyer: The Internet threatens the government, but the new law will put the government back
in control by making the ISPs directly answerable to the government. This is the untenable position we are facing in Japan.
What really strikes Hizumi and others is that there is so little public opposition or debate on a bill that would bring enormous change.
Chris Salzberg, who monitors, comments on and translates some of the Japanese blogosphere for Global Voices, an international blog round-up, said: It seems that the Web community in Japan is really pretty unaware of all of this, or else just in
disbelief. It's a strange situation. Maybe nothing will come of it, but it still seems like something people should at least be paying attention to.
I'm afraid ordinary citizens don't care about these lack of rights, consequently the Internet in Japan is heading for the Dark Ages, Hizumi said.
Japanese bloggers have been making noise the past few days in reaction to two separate bills, submitted first by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) and next by the leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), each aiming, in
apparently similar ways, to legislate regulation over Internet content deemed to be “harmful” to minors.
On March 19th, LDP Diet Member Takaichi Sanae submitted a bill to a government panel to legislate the prevention of browsing on the Internet of information harmful to young people in an attempt to maintain the sound upbringing of young people.
Shortly thereafter on April 2nd, Diet Member Takai Miho of the Democratic Party submitted a bill with the aim to create an environment that makes it possible for children to safely use the Internet. According to bloggers, the bills goes
significantly further than earlier legislation introduced late last year, which mandated default filtering on mobile phones for minors. Nonetheless, aside from a single article in Asahi shimbun on the topic, the two bills appear to have been granted no
mainstream media attention.
The main issues are:
1. An organization made up of a small number of people, established by the Cabinet Office and called the Committee on the Promotion of Sound Upbringing of Young People (at most five people), is drawing up evaluation criteria, for all content on
the Internet, defining what is and is not harmful to young people. And incidentally, declarations of objection to this standard is probably impossible.
2. Administrators of all websites, including individuals, will also be required, in cases where the contents of their site meets the above standards for harmful content, to do things such as implement a membership system on the whole site so that minors
cannot access it, or apply to have filtering software applied to their own site.
3. All employees of ISPs, ASPs, and so on are required to eliminate all harmful content and suspend all harmful services, and there is a punishment being put in place for cases in which these rules are not followed. As a result, deletion of web content
will be carried out.
4. Compulsory participation in the pre-installation of national standards-based filtering software or filtering services will be imposed on PC makers as well as carriers for all PCs and mobile phones.
The Japanese Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has made public a program to promote a safe Internet environment. It lists measures the central and local governments and enterprises must carry out by the end of fiscal 2011.
Among other things, they must effectively cope with information on the Internet that is harmful to children and intrudes on individual privacy.
On April 1, the law to restrict the Internet environment for users under the age of 18 went into effect. In principle, Web sites deemed harmful or inappropriate to children will be filtered. But parents can use their judgment to remove the filters.
In preparation for the law's enforcement, the government program called for promotion of the use of filters to block children's access via mobile phones and personal computers to Web sites that are deemed harmful or inappropriate. It also called for
development of filtering services aimed at different age groups and development of functions parents can use to decide which Web sites or categories of Web sites should be filtered. It also called for examining the effectiveness of Internet service
providers' blocking access to Web sites featuring child pornography.
Third-party organizations will certify Web sites as harmless or "R18" indicating the Web site is harmful to children under 18.
Japan's National Police Agency (NPA) is to urge ISPs to voluntarily block communications using anonymisation software Tor .
The move follows a case where PCs were remotely hijacked by computers using the Tor system, which allows users to mask their online identities and locations by routing connections through several servers. This case cause much embarrassment to the
Japanese who incompetently arrested, detained and extracted confessions under duress from the innocent victims of the hijacked computers.
A panel ofthe NPA, which was looking into measures to combat crimes using the Tor system, compiled a report on April 18 stating that blocking online communications at the discretion of site administrators will be effective in preventing such crimes.
According to the NPA, while the IP addresses of site visitors are normally known to the visited sites, the Tor system enables users to visit sites or dispatch information without revealing their identities. Over the past several years, the Tor system was
misused in a number of crimes including the posting of online murder threats on Internet bulletin boards, theft of money from accounts via illegal accesses to Internet banking sites, postings on dating sites by those seeking relationships with children,
and leakages of security information from the Metropolitan Police Department.
The police somehow neglected to mention the other side of the coin where the Tor system is utilized by citizens in pro-democracy movements in the Middle East to escape government suppression.
The planned access restrictions are therefore expected to be opposed by the internet industry. Communication privacy is our lifeline. We won't be able to accept such a request, said an industry insider.