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Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009
JUST BE CAUSE
2channel: the bullies' forum
Bullying in Japan is a big problem. The victims have limited recourse. Too often they are told to suck it up and self-reflect. Or if they fight back, they get criticized for lashing out. It's a destructive dynamic, causing much misery and many a suicide.
The bullies are empowered by an odd phenomenon: In Japan, the right to know your accuser is not a given. When kids get criticized by the anonymous rumor mill, authorities make insufficient efforts to disclose who said what. The blindfolded bullied become powerless: There are lots of them and one of you, and unless you put names to critics they escalate with impunity.
Internet bulletin board (BBS) 2channel, the world's largest, is the ultimate example of this dynamic. Although the BBS is very useful for public discussions, its debate firestorms also target and hurt individuals. This flurry of bullies is guaranteed anonymity through undisclosed Internet Protocol addresses, meaning they avoid the scrutiny they mete out to others.
Why absolute anonymity? 2channel's founder and coordinator, Hiroyuki Nishimura, believes it liberates debate and provides true freedom of speech. People speak without reservation because nobody knows who they are.
Quite. But freedom of speech is not absolute. It does not grant freedom to lie or deceive (as in fraud), nor to engage in malicious behavior designed to hinder calm and free discourse. The classic example is the lack of freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But libel and slander, where people willfully lie to assassinate characters and destroy lives, is also beyond the pale.
Japan does have checks against libel — lawsuits. Dozens of civil court cases have been brought against 2channel. When a problematic post appears, victims contact the BBS coordinator and request its removal. Alas, many get ignored. Then, when taken to court, Nishimura ignores summons to appear. Finally, even after losing dozens of times in court, Nishimura refuses to pay out. Years later, adjudged libelous posts (some about your correspondent) are still online and proliferating.
How is this possible? The Internet is a new media, and the judiciary hasn't caught up. If a newspaper or TV station publicizes erroneous information, they too can be sued. But the old media are more accountable. They have to register their corporation and get a license, so their wherewithal's whereabouts is public. If they lose and don't pay, the court will file a lien on their assets and withdraw the award for the plaintiffs.
However, in cyberspace people can start a "media outlet" without incorporation or licensing, meaning their assets remain invisible. Nishimura owes millions of dollars in court penalties, but unless he divulges his personal bank accounts, his wages can't be seized.
The dynamic becomes watertight thanks to a weakness in Japan's judiciary: In this case, one cannot convert a civil suit into a criminal case through "contempt of court." No cops will arrest him for being on the lam. Plaintiffs must hire their own private detectives to dig up Nishimura's assets. No checks, no balances, and the bully society remains above the law.
The abuses continue. Last month, cops decided to arrest a 2channeler who issued a death threat against sumo wrestler Asashoryu. About time: Hate-posters have long vilified ethnic minorities, threatened individuals, and waged cyberwars to deny others the freedom of speech they apparently so cherish.
Meanwhile, Nishimura keeps on wriggling. Last month he announced 2channel's sale to a Singaporean firm, making his assets even more unaccountable.
Some salute Nishimura as a "hero" and an "evangelist." He's also a willing abettor in the pollution of cyberspace, legitimizing an already powerful domestic bully culture with a worldwide audience. He had his day in court to explain himself. He didn't show. He lost. Now he must pay up.
If not, there will be blow-back. Our government has already made reactionary overtures to limit "illegal or harmful content" (whatever that means) on the Internet. Be advised: Once you give the unsophisticated Japanese police a vague mandate over anything, you'll have random enforcement and policy creep, as usual. Kaplooey goes cyberfreedom of speech.
Unless contempt of court procedures are tightened up to reflect the realities of new media, I believe Nishimura will be remembered historically as the irresponsible kid who spoiled the Internet for the rest of us.