Japan is cracking down on online insults to protect its citizens, and anybody found afoul of the new law may be imprisoned.
The anonymity of the internet often emboldens users to engage in conducts they would not attempt offline. This includes insulting other internet users on social media or in comment sections. However, the Japanese government is seeking to stop online insults by making it punishable with up to a year of prison time. The new law announced earlier this year would soon go into effect.
Apart from jail time, an offender may be punished with fines of up to 300,000 yen (about $2,200). That was an upgrade from less than 30 days in jail and up to 10,000 yen ($75).
Japan will reevaluate the law in three years to see its impact on free speech, which was a concern to the law’s critics. It was one of the conditions that allowed the law to be passed. However, the supporters said it is necessary to combat cyberbullying in the country. The push for the law was the suicide of a reality TV star who was a victim of cyberbullying.
Hana Kimura was a pro wrestler and reality TV star known for her role in the Terrace House show on Netflix. The news of her self-inflicted death shocked the nation and galvanized the call for stricter punishment for online bullying. Her fellow cast members also revealed the abuse they had received online.
Kimura’s mother, who used to be a pro wrestler, campaigned for stronger laws against cyberbullying in the wake of her daughter’s demise. She now runs a non-profit outfit known as “Remember Hana” to educate people on the dangers of cyberbullying. She is in full support of the new law.
Suicidal tendencies have been linked to cyberbullying and online presence, although most of the studies have been focused on teens and children.
The problem with the law is that there is no clear-cut definition of what an insult is, leaving room for grey areas. Japan’s penal code defines insults as publicly demeaning someone’s social standing without being able to point at specific facts or actions. It is different from defamation, which refers to publicly demeaning a person while pointing to specific facts.
Seiho Cho, a lawyer, based in Japan, said the new online insult law did not classify what qualified as an insult. “There needs to be a guideline that makes a distinction on what qualifies as an insult. For example, at the moment, even if someone calls the leader of Japan an idiot, then maybe under the revised law, that could be classed as an insult.”
However, think twice before hitting the send button if you live in Japan.
The UK has also enacted laws making it a punishable crime to post grossly offensive messages online. The first set of offenders has been tried under the new law already, with at least one being fined for the content of their tweets and another getting 150 hours of community service. However, just like in Japan, the UK laws are ambiguous, and the courts have to determine what is grossly offensive on a case-by-case basis.