Hurtful Internet posts on kids difficult to police

12:45 am, March 26, 2014
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Among Tokyo and Japan’s 46 other prefectures and 20 government ordinance-designated cities, at least 53 have identified private information or hurtful speech concerning primary, middle and high school students on the Internet and subsequently requested of site operators that the information be removed, according to Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

While the number of such requests has risen to at least 70,000, 39 governmental bodies of the 53 said that site operators have refused to comply with the requests, giving reasons such as that they could remove the information or defamation only if the person concerned made a request directly.

Some experts assert that site operators should accept requests from local governments, because there have been cases in which children refused to attend school as a result of hurtful information remaining accessible on the Internet.

The survey covers the period from April 2008, when many local governments first began to contracting with private businesses to monitor hurtful speech on the Internet, to December 2013. The survey covers education boards and divisions in charge of private schools of Tokyo, 46 prefectural governments and 20 government ordinance-designated cities.

Tokyo, 35 prefectures and 17 cities have issued requests to site operators or Internet providers to remove private information or hurtful speech. Among these bodies, Tokyo, 22 prefectures and 11 cities have maintained records, which together indicate a total of 69,736 such requests.

Tokyo, 24 prefectures and 14 cities, around 70 percent of the 53 affected bodies, answered that their requests had been rejected or that they had received no response concerning the requests at least once. They said that site operators or providers gave reasons including “We accept such requests only by a person concerned” and “Words such as ‘stupid’ and ‘creepy’ are not strong enough to be considered as defamation.”

The Akita prefectural government, for example, made 1,268 such requests from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012, but 21 percent, or 261, were turned down. The Saitama prefectural government requested removal in 5,860 cases in the same period, but 985 of the requests, or 17 percent, were rejected.

Local governments are having hard time dealing with the problem. An official of the Hamamatsu municipal education board said, “Asking the student concerned to make a request for removal, means that we must let the student know that he or she is being defamed.”

“We hope that the central government will compile guidelines and provide instruction to site operators,” said an official of the Saitama prefectural education board.

Prof. Motohiro Hasegawa of Kinjo Gakuin University, an expert on educational technology, said: “Concerning defamation of children, site operators should accept removal requests by public bodies such as education boards and schools to the greatest extent possible.”

Hard to deal with

“Who do you think is annoying at school?” “Which teacher do you hate?”

“Unofficial” school websites in a municipality in the Tohoku region are peppered with questions like these, and children have posted replies using their real names. Such sites have been set up for close to 90 percent of public primary and middle schools in the municipality in the last few years.

As Internet-based defamation has spread to members-only sites, it has grown harder to assess actual conditions of online abuses, and hurtful speech concerning children appears to have become even more serious.

The education board of this Tohoku municipality has asked site operators to remove comments. But the operators refused to do so in some cases, saying that victims could not be identified.

In some cases, real names or nicknames of students who are called “annoying” are not deleted, and some of the students who have seen their own names online felt traumatized and unable to attend school.

There are other hurtful words left in place on such sites. “All that we can do under the current system is instruct children not to read or write comments on these sites,” said an education board official.

A new genre of smartphone apps that restricts viewing of messages to registered members makes the already serious problem even harder to deal with. When these apps are used to make defamatory posts, even the private technology contractors employed by local governments to monitor such communications have difficulty finding them.

A schoolgirl in the Chubu region was unable to attend school after a boy from her school showed her a picture of herself naked. Her former boyfriend had shared the photo with his friends via the free instant messaging app Line. The school was unaware of the matter until it was reported by the girl.

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