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Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009
2channel founder ponders next step after forum's sale
By ALEX MARTIN
A short message recently posted on Hiroyuki Nishimura's personal blog sent shock waves across the online community. In a single sentence dated Jan. 2, he announced that he had sold 2channel, his wildly popular Internet forum.
The news, and further revelations that rights to the Web site were handed over to a little-known Singapore-based company, immediately raised concerns and questions among Internet users and the media over the fate of what has been called the world's largest and Japan's most influential online forum.
"I thought it might be interesting if I sold it (2channel) off, to see if there would be any difference if it was owned by a company, rather than myself," Nishimura told The Japan Times this week during the first long interview with the media after he made the surprising announcement.
Details of the company, Packet Monster Inc., and Nishimura's intentions behind the action remain unclear. Speculation abounds, however, that the move may be a legal trick to deflect further lawsuits filed against Nishimura for the site's frequently libelous content.
Nishimura also declined comment on the price tag attached to the Web site, which was owned and managed by Nishimura alone with the help of an army of volunteers, backed by a server in San Francisco.
Since he founded it 10 years ago, 2channel has revolutionized the role the Internet plays in public opinion by permitting Japanese to express anonymously their innermost sentiments, uncensored and unfiltered — a rarity in a nation known for decorum.
Nishimura himself compares 2channel with the sprawling, seedy pleasure zone in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. The Web site is the Kabukicho of cyberspace, he says — a place where people tired of clean, well-regulated daily life can repair to be themselves and indulge their baser instincts.
The forum is notorious for libelous postings that target individuals or institutions. And although the site does have a rule calling for deletion of such postings, its sheer size makes that difficult.
Nishimura — known by his first name Hiroyuki in online communities and Japanese media — has lost most of the lawsuits but has so far adamantly ignored court rulings and refused to pay the hundreds of million of yen he owes in penalties.
And now he is making things even more difficult for litigants by selling the site to a new owner and planning a possible move abroad.
"When I was managing the site, I was the one getting sued. But I don't go to trials, and I haven't paid a single yen. In that sense, I guess nothing will change," Nishimura, 32, replied when asked whether the incorporation of the forum would alter his stance toward the sea of litigation and rulings he faces.
A communications ministry official raised suspicions that the handover would further complicate any future judicial process involving the forum.
"If a lawsuit is filed against 2channel from now, in general I believe the company in Singapore would be the one handling it," the official said, stressing that in either case, everything depended on Nishimura's future involvement with the Web site, and that they lacked sufficient information to make any assertions.
Founded by Nishimura in 1999 during his year studying in Arkansas, 2channel has ballooned over the years in both the number of users — an estimated 10 million currently — and its social implication. The forum's hundreds of boards and thousands of threads dealing with vast and far-ranging topics have had both companies and authorities monitoring the site for anything from recent trends to the latest anonymous tip on murder threats.
Most recently, this month an anonymous warning led police to arrest a Hokkaido man for posting messages on 2channel threatening to kill Mongolian sumo superstar Asashoryu.
Its scope and influence have on occasion propelled it into the realm of bullying, with angry users ganging up and hacking or crashing other Web sites.
Dentsu Buzz Research, a division of advertisement giant Dentsu Inc. that analyzes blogs and forum articles posted on the Net by consumers, told The Japan Times that out of the more than 2.8 billion articles they have monitored since November 2006, 75 percent were posted on 2channel.
The research division's spokesman said, "2channel is extremely influential as an online information source, and cannot be ignored."
When questioned whether there would be any change in 2channel operations that accommodated the shift in management, Nishimura gave the ambiguous response: "I won't be the one making the decisions, I guess."
He explained that he used to be the main moderator when an online discussion became heatedly divisive and needed direction, but that job would now be the company's.
"But I don't think 2channel will change much. I mean, there's no need to alter anything about it," he added with his signature nonchalance.
However, Nishimura also said that if the new management seeks his advice in 2channel's operations, he would be willing to help. Asked if that meant he was taking on the task of an adviser, he said, "Yeah, I guess you can call it something like that."
Nishimura's ambivalence in clarifying his stance caused a stir in the online community when he appeared live on Jan. 12 on an online video hosted by Nico Nico Douga, a popular video-sharing Web site that Nishimura helped develop. There he commented on 2channel's future policy regarding news threads, prompting many to question whether he was still managing the bulletin board system after his announcement of a handover.
Jiro Makino, a lawyer and expert on Internet law, said it was possible the company in Singapore was outsourcing 2channel's operations to Japan, maybe even to Nishimura himself, while taking on legal responsibilities. "But whatever the case, I'd have to see the actual contract in order to figure out what really went on," he said.
Makino added that his office has handled court cases against Nishimura in the past, and that many of the rulings could not be enforced since his people could not determine Nishimura's true address, something necessary when mailing important documents and carrying forward the judicial process.
"He uses a false address. Last year I actually visited the address in Shinjuku that he was registered under, but the place was abandoned. He's basically roaming around, itinerant," Makino said. His office was also unaware where Nishimura kept his assets, he added, probably because the defendant shifted his accounts frequently to avoid seizure.
"The police cannot be called in since these are all civil cases," he said.
Despite Nishimura's legal scuffles, he remains a charismatic figure in online communities and the media, although he doesn't consider himself a celebrity and expresses distaste at the possibility of being treated as one.
"It would be a pain in the ass if I had a lot of fans coming after me," he said.
Nishimura said he preferred staying home, playing games (he said he gets more of a buzz playing video games than anything else), reading books and watching movies than being in the spotlight. "It's like I'm retired already. I'm living the life that I imagined when I was a kid," he said.
Seiji Sugimoto, president of Niwango, Inc., which operates Nico Nico Douga, said Nishimura — a board member of the company — was the innovative force behind the firm who came up with various new ideas to develop its Web content. "I guess you can call Hiroyuki sort of an evangelist," Sugimoto said.
Evangelist or not, Nishimura acknowledged the somewhat unfavorable image attached to 2channel, but said it helped the BBS carve out a niche for itself.
"Some people like hanging out in Omote-sando, where it's clean and nice, but some prefer the chaos of Kabukicho," Nishimura said. "And I don't think there are that many places (online) that provide that."
Regarding the issue of online anonymity, Nishimura said that if the current recession continues, he believed an increasing number of people will begin revealing their true identities.
"For people who are on the verge of losing their jobs or who are not part of an organization in the first place, the downsides are equal, real name or not," Nishimura said, adding that most of 2channel's criminal threats were posted by those who were unemployed or students.
"I think people who have nothing to lose will begin shedding their anonymity," he said.
Asked what he plans for the future, Nishimura said he may move overseas in the midterm, if not as early as this year. "Considering the upside and downside of me staying in Japan, I wonder what the point is" in remaining, he said.
Nishimura said he already spent a lot of time last year traveling, both privately and for business, saving up airline frequent flyer mileage so he can "go somewhere that's cheap."
"You can work anywhere as long as you can receive e-mails," he said.