Huge issue exposed by LINE

In March 2021, it was reported that LINE Corporation, which operates a free communication app, has stored data of users’ images and videos on a server in South Korea, which was acknowledged as a problem.

However, it is not uncommon for an IT company to use a foreign server. Then why did the case of LINE become a huge issue?

This is partly because the users, which allegedly account for 80% of the Japanese population, were not clearly informed that LINE used servers in South Korea.

Although it was explained that the data was encrypted, which means that even the South Korean staff managing the server cannot see it, users have become distrustful because they had not been informed.

In addition, the fact that the company outsourced some of their work to a Chinese company, of which Chinese staff were able to see the data, has possibly exacerbated the feeling of distrust.

The fact that social media, including LINE, has virtually become an infrastructure has also made the problem even bigger.

During this coronavirus pandemic, for example, a number of local governments have made use of LINE to send and receive various information on COVID-19, such as announcing the number of people infected in the region and receiving notifications from people who become sick.

This is because LINE takes much less manpower and troubles, and costs less time and money, to share information with local residents compared to conventional methods such as the telephone, postcards and newsletters.

Although some local governments in fact suspended the utilization of LINE owing to this issue, now that we know the convenience of LINE, there is no alternative to LINE as an information access tool.

In response to this issue, LINE has indeed announced that it will use domestic servers in the future, although the reason they used servers in South Korea was the cost.

In other words, since their main purpose is to make profits as a private company, they will take various measures to achieve that, and if they cannot expect profits, they may discontinue their LINE services.

In such a case, local governments and residents may feel left behind.

Since the commercial use of the Internet at full scale began in 1995, ICT technology has improved dramatically and even changed the structure of society, where globalization has been facilitated. The digitalization of local government services has also made our lives more convenient.

However, it is the private sector that promotes this. The problem with LINE has made us realize once again that local governments and government agencies depend on such private companies.

It is necessary to hold thorough discussions on how to best utilize ICT technology, which will continue to develop, as a society.

Movement toward tightening regulations on ICT

In recent years, for example, there have been increased movement toward legally regulating the utilization of ICT technology around the world. The EU GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) enacted in 2018 is a typical example.

The contents of this Regulation cover a wide range of areas, including the collection and processing of personal data, and the taking of such data outside the EU. In short, companies that handle personal data are required to conduct strict information management. The Regulation also includes punitive clauses for disobedience.

Japanese companies operating in the EU need to pay attention to laws and regulations that are different from those in Japan.

China enacted the Cyber Security Law in 2017. This law includes provisions that companies must respond to requests from the Chinese government to hand over data they possess. In other words, the idea is that all data, including personal data, should be controlled by the state.

After all, China clearly states that it has sovereignty over the Internet. It considers that the Internet should be controlled by the state just like territory and territorial waters.

When the Internet first came into commercial use, there was a concept that the Internet was free, open and borderless. Actually, globalization has been greatly enhanced by the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Chinese way of thinking is unique and almost precisely the opposite. However, as is the case with the EU GDPR, there is a growing trend in the Western world to regulate the Internet from the perspective of the protection and management of personal information.

Even though they are the opposite approaches, the world has begun to proceed from the free, open, borderless Internet to the regulated, managed Internet.

Even Japan, where social digitalization is said to have fallen behind, must give thought to the necessity of some kind of regulation and management, thinking back over the problem of LINE.

Necessity to let go of too convenient analogs

As a matter of fact, Japanese society is exceptionally unique compared to the rest of the world and apparently hinders the digitalization.

For instance, electronic voting and online voting have been introduced too slowly in election voting. This is because the traditional analog voting mechanisms have few problems, which is rare in the world, and are very well operated.

For example, during some activities of JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), I have given lectures on election administration to people in developing countries. On this occasion, I was puzzled when I was asked if they did not have to place police officers at polling stations or to use transparent ballot boxes.

This means that voting stations in developing countries are attacked or fraudulent voting is committed using opaque ballot boxes commonly.

In fact, in some countries, it is prohibited to serve alcohol at restaurants on the day before voting. It is because each group of supporters gets together to drink, and they become riotous after getting drunk. Moreover, some countries have long lines at polling stations, where it takes one to two hours to vote.

The bottom line is that people outside Japan regard electronic voting and online voting as a more convenient, safer, and more reliable voting mechanism than those managed and operated by people. Such a mechanism has already been introduced in many countries such as the United States, India, Nepal, and Brazil.

In Estonia, which introduced online voting for the first time in the world in a local assembly election in 2005, the number of users is growing year after year without any major problems or trouble.

On the contrary, in Japan, people feel that there is no proactive significance to introduce online voting.

On the other hand, however, the voter turnout in national elections is below 50%, which is Japan’s major challenge. If the voter turnout can be boosted by online voting, by which people won’t have to trouble themselves going to a polling station, it is probably worth being introduced.

Possible problems of online voting include risks of communication failures and power outages, rewriting of voting records, bribes and coercion due to the non-existence of polling stations as a way of surveillance, and double voting and impersonating voting. However, these risks are not expected to increase significantly compared to the current voting system.

In addition, if we make use of the latest ICT technology and the Social Security and Tax Number System, it is unlikely that online voting will cause major problems. In fact, many countries around the world utilize and have implemented such a system successfully.

It would make voting much easier for elderly people who have difficulty going to the polling station, the young generation which finds voting bothersome, and when the weather is bad. It is also very convenient for overseas voters and in-person early voters.

In particular, most students who have come to universities in Tokyo from other areas are unlikely to have moved their resident register. When the voting age was lowered to 18 years old in 2016, a lot of posters encouraging voting were displayed on university campuses. The question is how many students actually returned home to vote.

Even if you wish to cast an absentee vote, it requires a very troublesome process.

If the government becomes more concerned about the low voter turnout, they will become more proactive about introducing a system that makes voting easier.

What matters is that while social media has become an infrastructure thanks to its high level of convenience, there has been no progress in areas where it is not necessary to actively introduce digitalization.

However, it is unclear how long the current public services and systems can be maintained in Japan, where the birthrate is declining fastest in the world. Further, if such systems can no longer be maintained, and authorities make haste to digitize their services, global rules and standards might be significantly changed.

In order to keep pace with the development of global standards for the Internet, which is already underway, now may be the time to give up Japan’s convenient analog technology, despite its virtues.

The problem with LINE and the delay in introducing electronic systems such as online voting make me believe that Japan should have a more serious sense of crisis of becoming like an underdeveloped country.

* The information contained herein is current as of October 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.