Unmasking online comments could be abused to suppress speech rights in Japan

© moro/Takeshobo
Mangaka moro depicts a character facing the horrors of defamation spreading, saying: “Things I don’t remember are spreading” and “It’s getting bigger and bigger.”

The increasing number of defamatory comments has become a major factor in why social media operators have started deleting an enormous amount of posts.

As a way to counter this trend in Japan, a system was put in place to allow requests for disclosure of information about those who defame others online. However, there have been some cases in which this was apparently misused for the purpose of suppressing critical opinions.

“We would like to inquire about your opinion on our decision to comply with a request to disclose your information.” Letters with the above message have been received one after another since last autumn by about 20 Twitter users. They were sent by the internet service provider (ISP) that the 20 recipients use.

Prior to this, a person claimed to have been defamed online and requested the provider to disclose the Twitter users’ personal information — based on the disclosure system. The letter was sent to confirm the intentions of the recipients.

As stipulated in the Provider Liability Limitation Law, the system requires mainly social media operators and ISPs to disclose information about people who have posted defamatory comments about others.

Upon receiving such a request, operators or ISPs decide whether to disclose relevant information after confirming the intention of the person in question. If they refuse to do so, the claimants must file a lawsuit to seek disclosure.

The above request was made by Takashi Tachibana, a former House of Councillors member and head of NHK kara Kokumin o Mamoru To (Party to protect the people from NHK), which is currently known as Furui Seito kara Kokumin o Mamoru To (Party to protect the people from old parties).

Claiming that the Twitter users had defamed him on the platform with comments such as “antisocial forces” and “fraud,” he demanded their information be disclosed. After his initial request was rejected, he filed a lawsuit demanding the disclosure.

“Since I took legal action, defamatory comments have almost stopped,” said Tachibana.

“One of the purposes for my action is to silence them, but nowadays anyone can hurt others online, and I find this situation very wrong. This is an action to change it.”

However, a man in the Kyushu region who received the letter from the provider objected. “Tachibana has described himself as ‘antisocial forces’ on YouTube, so I only quoted him. It’s crazy that a politician would make a request for information disclosure in order to discourage people from expressing opinions.”

There is no end to online defamation, making the disclosure system even more essential to prevent harm caused by such acts.

According to the Illegal Harmful Hotline, it received 5,198 consultations mainly on abusive comments in fiscal 2019. That figure was four times the level in fiscal 2010.

Moro, a 44-year-old mangaka living in Chiba Prefecture, has also used the disclosure system.

A few years after the mangaka started publishing her work online about her daily life with her autistic son, who is now 12, an anonymous blogger began posting comments on the boy, who was a first-grader at the time. The comments included, “He hurt my child” and “He is always very rough. Get out and move to a different school.”

Every time the mangaka took part in parent-teacher meetings, she became paranoid, wondering whether the blogger might be among the attendees. This led to her taking detours whenever she picked up her son from school, out of fear of being followed.

At the end of 2017, abusive messages were also sent to her Twitter account. In the following year, she filed a request for the disclosure of information about the senders of two posts. The defamatory comments then suddenly stopped. Both the abusive posts were sent by the same woman, who was a complete stranger to her.

The mangaka also filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for damages. Last year, the court ordered the woman to pay ¥1.1 million in compensation.

“I was terrified of being defamed by someone I couldn’t see,” the mangaka said, recalling her experience. “It is reassuring to know that there is a way to fight back.”

Through a recent revision of the disclosure system, it will become easier to identify senders of abusive posts.

Under the current system, it is necessary to go through two individual court proceedings against each social media operator and the internet service provider. But under the revised system, a court will determine whether to disclose the information based on the claim, and therefore only one procedure will be necessary.

“The revision is expected to increase the effect of reducing harm caused by defamation, but there are also concerns that it might be abused,” said Tomohiro Kanda, a lawyer with expertise in lawsuits seeking information disclosure. “When public figures and others request disclosure in response to criticisms toward them, [social media] operators and ISPs will be required to make more careful decisions. This kind of behavior should come under scrutiny in society.”