Fun fact of the day: Network routers are illegal in Japan

秘密を知りたい

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There's no doubt that the internet has caused massive shakeups in laws across the globe, but in Japan the law has an unusual kink: internet routers are technically illegal.

Except they're not. Because under a very Japanese rule, the ability of electronic equipment to read a packet header both violates the law and "seems not illegal."

As explained today by Akimichi Ogawa in a blog post on the website of Asia-Pacific IP address allocator APNIC, this concept in fact covers pretty much every aspect of the internet in Japan, since under both the Japanese Constitution and its relevant telecoms law, it is not allowed to snoop on communications.

Of course, routers (and switches, and network management tools, and content blocking) can't actually function properly without reading packet headers in order to properly direct them, so that process is seen as being a "reasonable act."

As such, Ogawa explains, it "violates the law, but seems not illegal."

Some of these interpretations of the law are formally compiled as guidelines either by the government itself or by industry with government ministries then signing off on them. But while they are deemed "not illegal," they also have no way of being formally legal since there is no body, not even the courts, that is allowed to make such a determination.

Those interpretations also act like the more familiar case law in Western legal systems with a precedential impact – interpretations are built on earlier interpretations.

Before you get too excited about this approach however, it doesn't actually result in many benefits. Although the Japanese government famously refused to tap underwater fiber optic cables for the NSA, the same dirty business of secret government surveillance continues unabated.

Just over a month ago, the Japanese Supreme Court struck down a second appeal against the government's blanket surveillance of Muslims in the country. Back in 2010, leaked police files revealed that Japanese police were monitoring their Muslim citizens in mosques, restaurants and just about everywhere else. A group sued, saying the spying was unconstitutional.

The court awarded 90m yen ($890,000) to the plaintiffs for having their privacy infringed, but failed to say anything about the police tactics and whether they are legal or not and constitutional or not.

And so the surveillance of citizens appears to sit in the same place as internet routers: violates the law, but seems not illegal. ®

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