Illegal Online Advertising: Campaign Team’s Actions Undermine Election Fairness

It would be contemptible if the nebulous nature of the Public Offices Election Law, which permits election-related internet usage but outlaws online advertising, was intentionally exploited.

The investigation must clarify the circumstances behind the activities that undermined the fairness of the election.

The campaign team of Yayoi Kimura — elected in April to serve for the first time as mayor of Koto Ward in Tokyo — is suspected of having used paid online advertisements during the election campaign period to solicit votes for their candidate.

The special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office recently searched the ward mayor’s office and other locations on suspicion of the violation of the Public Offices Election Law. Kimura subsequently announced her intention to resign from her post.

The law prohibits paid online ads that name candidates because if well-funded individuals or election campaign teams run a large number of such ads, election fairness could not be maintained.

Kimura’s online ad featured her picture and a message reading, “Please vote for Yayoi Kimura.” It was posted on a video-sharing website during the election campaign period and viewed 380,000 times.

The person who advised the Kimura’s side to use online advertising was Mito Kakizawa, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and then state minister of justice. Kakizawa basically acknowledged his involvement in the matter to Justice Minister Ryuji Koizumi, but said he was “not aware of any illegality,” according to Koizumi.

In 2013, the ruling and opposition parties enacted lawmaker-initiated legislation to allow candidates to use the internet for election campaigning. The law allows candidates to distribute videos of speeches and solicit support via their personal websites or by other means during campaign periods, as long as such materials and actions do not constitute advertising.

However, the law also includes a provision prohibiting paid online advertising.

When the law was enacted, Kakizawa was already a member of the House of Representatives. It is outrageous that a member of the Diet would deviate from rules established by Diet members themselves. It is quite natural for him to resign from his post as state minister of justice.

In general, online advertisements are automatically interspersed with video contents when viewers access video-sharing websites. Kimura’s campaign team may have placed its ad in the hope that even people with no interest in the mayoral race would learn about her views.

From the voters’ perspective, it was difficult to distinguish whether Kimura’s videos and messages were advertisements or freely distributed information.

In addition, it is illegal for voters to send emails requesting support for a candidate. Nevertheless, it is permissible to post the same contents on such social media sites such as Facebook. Observers have long pointed out the difficulty of understating these regulatory inconsistencies.

A decade has passed since internet usage was green-lighted for election campaigns. It is crucial for the ruling and opposition parties to grapple with the issues at hand — not least the question of whether existing regulations are fit for purpose.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 3, 2023)