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Thursday, May 22, 2003

Upper House panel approves controversial data-protection bills

Staff writer

A set of controversial bills intended to protect personal information held by administrative bodies and private businesses cleared Wednesday their highest hurdle before enactment.

The bills, which have been bashed by the media as well as by opposition lawmakers, passed a special House of Councilors committee and are now expected to be approved and enacted into law at a plenary session Friday.

The ruling bloc, made up of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party, voted in favor of the bills. The four opposition parties -- the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Party, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party -- voted against them.

Opposition lawmakers argued that the privacy protection bills are designed to strengthen state control at the expense of citizens' rights and freedoms. The lawmakers are also concerned about another set of wartime contingency bills that could restrict people's basic human rights in national emergencies.

For the ruling bloc, the expected passage of the bills marks a big political victory, as they have been struggling to enact them since original bills were submitted to the Diet last year.

In the course of the Diet debate, the government met a barrage of criticism from the media, which were concerned about the damage the legislation could pose to press freedoms. The attacks forced lawmakers to revise the bills and drop some key provisions.

If enacted, the bills will oblige private-sector corporations to specify their reasons for collecting personal information, notify people when businesses obtain their personal data, and prohibit the corporations from offering the data to a third party without consent of the individuals in question.

The bills would also stipulate that administrative bodies should not own or use personal information except for defined purposes, and that officials need to notify people of the purpose when using their private information.

Opposition parties agree that such laws are necessary in the age of information technologies, as many cases of private data leakage from computer networks have already been reported.

But they argued that the laws are "too lenient for bureaucrats and too severe for the private sector," saying the laws would not stop data abuse by bureaucrats.

They cited the recent revelation of a scandal in which the Defense Agency had for years secretly collected private data of young men with the help of municipalities. The information gathered -- including the occupations of their parents -- was used to recruit Self-Defense Force personnel.

Under the bills, complaints over the applications of the laws would be dealt with by a government minister. Opponents argue that an independent third-party should be established for that role.

To protect the freedom of expression and reporting, the laws would not be applied to newspaper firms, broadcasting firms, writers, researchers, political groups or religious groups.

But opponents claim that the definition of "reporting" is subject to government interpretation and that freelance writers and magazines which write on political scandals could be pressed hard.

The Diet deliberations "have made clear again that the essence of the bills have never been changed from the original government bills that were scrapped last year," the Social Democratic Party said in a statement released after the committee session.

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The Japan Times

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