As Americans, you may be surprised to hear that Japan has laws that cover cyberbullying. Up until recently, offenders could be jailed for up to 30 days or fined 10,000 yen, which is currently equivalent to about $75 US. Due in part to the suicide of a Japanese reality-TV star following months of social media abuse, Japan’s parliament strengthened those penalties to up to one year and 300,000 yen. While there are laws in the US that govern libel and defamation, including the ones that have been highlighted in another, much more high-profile case, the language and penalties are vague enough that cyberbullying is rarely prosecuted, as is demonstrated with the rampant abuse that appears regularly in all social media platforms.
What this means for you
Opponents of this legislation are understandably concerned that this type of law could lead to suppression of free speech and criticism of those in power and cite the vague language of the current penal code that determines what constitutes an insult and where it differs from defamation, another activity that is governed by separate laws in Japan. As it stands the increased penalties only came after both sides agreed that the language of the law should be reviewed in three years time to gauge whether the stiffer punishment had any chilling effect on free speech. Prior to this recent change in Japanese law, several people were convicted of cyberbullying in the matter of the aforementioned suicide, but the penalties were so slight (fines of $66 USD) that the ruling just incited outrage amongst the communities lobbying for more attention on social media abuses.
As serious as the Japanese take the concept of honor and “face,” the same could be said of how passionate Americans are about free speech, and despite pledges from the major social media platforms, reforms, moderation and accountability are still only paid lip service with very little concrete action from any platform. We are currently at a crossroads of ethics, capitalism and global politics – platforms like Facebook are so monolithic and monopolistic across all societies and cultures they defy any and all country’s laws and norms, to the point of being able to set the rules and enforce their own worldview, apparently with no accountability, forcing countries who are trying to protect their citizens to make laws that possibly undermine values they claim to value the most. Various laws have been made here in the states that challenge both sides of this thorny issue, but it only highlights the fact that the internet and social media has given bullies more freedoms than should have been allowed, ever. It also asks a very uncomfortable question: do humans have the inalienable right to be awful to their fellow humans with no accountability? There seems to be a lot of people who think that our First Amendment allows just that.
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