Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Japan has a process where they make boards and inquiry panels to discuss important issues with experts and the public. These inquiry panels are defined by law and are supposed to be an important part of the law making process, but in fact they are often used to diffuse public pressure and just act like they care. I am often asked to join such panels and I find I learn a lot about what is going on and can usually influence the direction ever so slightly. I usually feel this is better than not doing anything, but I am often citied as having been co-opted. In the past, the issues haven't been so important or public so it hasn't really mattered. This time it does.

A month or so ago, the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications which is in charge of the National ID that I have been protesting approached me and asked me if I could organize a panel to review the privacy issues around the National ID. I consulted with our protest movement we decided that if the results were made public and we could fund some privacy research, this was probably a good thing. We are now in the process of organizing a global survey of privacy technology, privacy commissioners and other things that would be useful in considering how to set up the Japanese government privacy policy. We hope to create a recommendation about what Japan should do in creating new system as well as what we can do to minimize privacy invasiveness in the current system. So far so good.

Now I have been contacted again, but this time the request is to be on the board of the National ID committee and be in charge of privacy! Apparently this is a request from the minister. (Very interesting since I practically called him a liar on a live national news program where we debated against each other and I think he called me something that sounded a lot like "stupid." Anyway...) It is probably a move to try to co-opt me. I replied saying that I have no intention of stopping my anti-National ID activity or becoming "quiet." I said I would consider taking the post if I was allowed to be completely open and public about what we discussed in the meetings and if I were allowed to continue to protest the National ID. I think that if I were to take such a post, it would negatively impact the movement. Having said that, as we all know from Karl Auerbach's ability to really be a pain in the ass to ICANN as a board member, I think co-opting doesn't work when one is able to be public with one's comments. So I'm thinking about this. If they come back and tell me that I have to stop protesting or I have to keep the meeting discussions confidential, I will obviously say, "No." On the other hand, if I am able to blog everything that is going on inside, I wonder if they will be able to co-opt me. Anyway, this may end up being quite an interesting test for this medium and my blog...

On the other hand, (since I know my investors, board members and employees are now reading my blog...) I probably don't have to time to do the job properly considering the fact that I have a REAL JOB and this whole thing was supposed to be just a hobby... hmm.... And if I focus my REAL JOB too much on my hobby, it compromises my independence... hmm... All this is SO difficult.


If I may use the Bush League Ontology, it seems to be a question of whether you can be both With Them and Against Them, ja nai ka?

Since not everybody that will be aware of your public stance will have been reading your weblog, it's possible that where you can be described in a single phrase as being will be more influential than where you actually are, at least to the public "mind"...

If you play along with someone's attempt to co-opt you merely to obtain an inside view, it is unlikely that their efforts will end there, is it not?

Thank you to everyone for emailing me all of your comments. The variety of opinions is amazing and confusing to a certain extent. I have begun to negotiate with them about terms and was asked to keep this discussion private until they announce something within a week or so. I will let everyone know as soon as I am released from this "silent" period. Sorry, and thanks for your support.

PS I am going to see if I can negotiate terms that allow me to participate with a variety of assurances to allow me to be write and act unencumbered.

Most of the feedback I got was in to form of replies to my spam. I am going to take the liberty of posting the notes here without the names of the people who sent them. If you don't mind your name being posted, please email me and I will add it to your comments.


I think you hit the nail on the head. If you'd be free to openly discuss the meetings and continue your other activities, then that's a point for participating. If on the other hand your speech re the meetings would be restricted (either all or part of the time), or if you feel your role would be as a "token" privacy person who would constantly be rolled over by pro-NATID, anti-privacy forces, then the position could be quite negative. This latter view would be especially true if you felt that your presence might be publicized as an endorsement of the committee's work.

So as usual, the devil is in the details...


From: Osamu Higuchi

Public blogging of the discussion in the committee like that would be really cool and very Joi-ish. Having it in Japanese text, if possible, would be cooler and thrilling.

Why not go for it? I believe you will never be co-opted anyway.


The utility of your accepting the role of privacy commissioner for the national ID program depends largely on what your objectives in your opposition to the program are. Your objectives are not fully clear to me from reading your blog. It can't be, certainly at this time, to hope to stop the program.

Strategically, the government stands little to lose from offering you the job: if you were to accept it, the government would use this as an argument that the concerns of the privacy advocates have been listened to, perhaps even met. The opposition, as you pointed out, would lose steam. Nor can you do much damage, since unlike Auerbach, you likely would not have the clear-cut legal rights to view the very information that is attempted to be concealed. (I don't know which, if any, information may be).

Were you to accept the position, I suspect you might rapidly become both frustrated (since your objectives in doing so are unlikely to be met)and bored (since you are used to having more irons in the fire than you may have time for after accepting such a position).

Anyway, just my $0.02 based on what I read in your blog. Though I am curious what your objectives with your national ID protest are.


if you are allowed to keep protesting and to be public, I think you should do it. Even though it is after the fact, there may still yet be a ground swell of public opinion against this thing that may be big enough to get some changes made (probably after a couple of scandals with leaked data that the press jump on big time). Every Japanese person I've asked is under-informed about the National ID, but is usually sure that they don't like it. The key is more information. And if that happened, then the politicians would have to change sides in mid-stream and you would end up looking good. Am I being too naive about change being possible?


Hope you're well. My husband and I are talking about this- interesting for sure. We are both involved w/our community planning and zoning process here- My husband is on our local task force (nominated by me), and I show up and make comments that sometimes get in the tiny neighborhood papers. Just a tiny chance to see politicizing (sp?) and special interest organization in action- which is fun for me as a non-affiliated resident.:)

My husband thinks you should join and continue to voice your opinions, and step down if they have an issue with it. You would then be in a position to be 'forced' to resign, upon which you can then make the decision to raise some more noise about it. Of course, if they make the stipulation that you can't talk, then you have to throw out the above...
To me, I think joining any faction is in itself a compromise. You must know this as a result of being on so many committees- you try to accomplish the greatest good with whatever level of change you can effect, but in joining in the process, you are paying obeisance to the monster of the organization. A never ending problem...


From: Peter G. Neumann

You should do it. If it turns out to be impossible, your resignation could have the effect of Dave Parnas's resignation from Reagan's SDI panel!


From: Antoin O Lachtnain


you should give some thought to the following possibility -

maybe they realise there is merit in your arguments, and realise that they have to change your position.

They can't just come out and say they've changed their minds; they would lose too much face.

instead, they are going to get you to write a big, dignified report as part of their process, and they will use the findings as a basis to change direction.

one thing you could do in this situation is to nominate someone you trust in your own place.


From: Andy Oram

Congratulations on the invitation to this important position, whether or not you accept it.

My first observation is subjective. In general, I've found it important to feel excited and energized by any volunteer (or even work-related) task I take on. If you consider it just a burden and a distraction, you'll hate it and not do it well. So be honest with yourself (as it seems you are, in this posting).

That said, there may be reasons to be excited and energized. You know better than I would whether this is true. The issue is important and will not go away; it is also international and will earn international news reports. Essentially, you could get an immediate public soapbox and the ear of policy-makers. I remember you talking to me in our dinner about the value of maintaining relations with the WTO and IMF; the same principles may apply here. You can keep the option of quitting at any time if you are asked to do something you consider a betrayal of your reasons for joining. Also, this could be really educational--you can learn a lot about how government agencies operate

The worst thing, as I've read, about a national ID is not the card itself but the enormous, centralized database that must be built up on every citizen. That's a big issue in itself, with important precedents.


From: Woody Hodgson

My gut reaction is don't do it, that is, accept the position of member of "the board of the National ID committee and be in charge of privacy". It runs too much a risk I think of damping down the fire, so to speak, of your important and visible (fire)brand recognition.
I fear if you go in and are allowed permission to report openly, you'll just be blogging a bog--a Japanese political quicksand pit designed to appear to be addressing the issue while the bureaucratic inertia blunders onward oblivious or unable to adopt or benefit from the good things you'll be attempting.
One question though: who else will be on the committee? Is it by invitation only from the Ministry? Will you actually have a mandate to do something concrete and more than just offer an advisory? If so, then maybe.....
However, permissible protest by invitation ultimately lacks gonads.


Anyway, my thoughts are -- the issue of cooptation is not about your mind, as much as about your name, or rather, whatever your name has come to mean to the public who pays attention to these issues. Your membership on the committee is an implicit endorsement by you, of at the very least, the idea that it is conceivable to implement a National ID program with sufficient privacy safeguards so that the program does not pose a privacy threat. I'm not sure if you believe in this or not. I had the idea you were opposed to the general notion of a national ID, as opposed to the specific implementation proposed by the government. If this is true, I think it would be a mistake to join this board, because, no matter how much noise you make on your blog, or even in the press, the presence of your name as a member of the board cannot help but leave the impression that you are a supporter of the National ID program in concept, if not in detail. Perhaps more to the point, I think it would be extremely disheartening to those in the general public who also oppose the program and who have come to see you as the face of dissent around the issue to find that you are now working for 'the man'. As a member of the board, your name will be inextricably linked to the institution which is promulgating the ID program, whether you like it or not. (The distinction between your membership on this board, and Karl Auerbach's on ICANN is that Auerbach is not, I think, opposed in principle to the idea of domain names and numbers -- he just doesn't like how they are assigned.)

Also, the idea that you can successfully safeguard the privacy interests of those whose privacy is about to be violated by the organization of which you are a member of the "elite" is sort of morally suspect. This kind of argument has been attempted, never successfully, by all kinds of people who had official status within some form of oppressive or morally corrupt institution, but tried to make the argument that they were defending the interests of its victims. (The idea of the Jewish Police in the Warsaw ghetto comes to mind here -- of course an overstatment, but there is some parallel here.)


From: Takao Nakamura

Hmm,,, it seems very difficult situation as you are saying but I hope personally that you will accept the posion and execute the very interesting test. I think this test will be not only for the new medium, blog, but also for the Japanese current/old Admistrative system itself. And I think the fact that you will be at that position would also have some positive influence on your REAL JOB, too.

Just my first impression.


To answer some of the questions and respond to some of the points, here is how I see some of the issues.

The primary threat is now the next wave of bills and initiatives leveraging the National ID. Including: 1) National authentication system based on the National ID, 2) the privacy bill, 3) the "LGWAN" or Local Government Wide Area Network, 4) National Security and Risk Management / War & Intelligence, 4) Medical Records indexed by National ID, 5) Whistle Blower names indexed by National ID, 6) FOIA requestors indexed by National ID, 7) many many other bills and initiatives I don't yet know about.

I believe it is unlikely to be able to totally kill the National ID at this point. The best thing is to isolate it and try to prevent it from being connected to anything else. The bureaucrats have, in response to our aggressive questioning, promised that the system is intended only for the purpose of processing local government paperwork. I think the trick is trying to make them stick to this promise. (Even though we all know the other ministries and poised and ready with bills allowing them to use the information.) The other thing is to try to get them to consider new architecture and technologies to minimize the risk. For instance, dumping the 11 digit number and going to some sort of digital signature that is not human readable, making the number opt-in rather than mandatory, not linking it to the physical ID card, etc. I think that the best position to push these issues is from the committee.

The Cons

My name will undoutably be used to justify the National ID.

It will also take some time and energy, although I don't think it will take A LOT of time since I have people helping me prepare position statements, etc. It will probably involve a few hours a month at the board meetings.

It is kind of any oxymoron, National ID privacy, but I think that I can greatly decrease the risk by causing some small technical, procedural and legal changes to the current framework.

My idea to be public about the information is risky since I don't control mass media and my blog is still pretty fringy.

The pros

Even though the money is a bit dirty, we will be able to fund research and reports into privacy, a very under-funded academic field.

I will have access to more information, especially all of the bills considering linkage with the National ID. One of the biggest reasons we were unable to stop the National ID was that the bill had already passed before we started protesting. If we had started protesting before it passsed, we would probably have been able to kill it.

I can always resign and cause problems if I don't like the way it is run.

Just my two cents rather late in the game:

When you say you "can always resign and cause problems later", I sense a basic mistrust here. I would have to ask myself if I want to be aligned with an organization, that from the onset, I had misgivings about. This may be an oversimplified thought, but good luck with your decision and I'm sure you will do whats right for you. 8-)

Thanks for everyone's support. A quick update. I have been given the freedom to set up a budgeted research panel to study privacy technology, government use of such technology, privacy commissions and how one might function in Japan. I am hoping that we will be able to make it public. I think most of this information already exists in English, but I think it will be hugely important that we will be able to pay for a translation since there really are almost NO experts or papers in Japanese about monitoring the government's use of personal information.

Also, the Ministry set up a panel to review the National ID's progress. I was able to have them include Kazuhisa Ogawa, who I believe is the most honest and most intelligent military and risk expert in Japan. He BASHED the government on it's response during the Kobe earthquake and is known to call bureaucrats bakamono (stupid) to their face. He and I generally agree on most things and since he is a senior former defense guy, he can get away with saying stuff a lot louder than I can. ;-) The committee and the members will meet today and it will be announced officially, but on the 30th the minister already announced this generally. The spin doctors at the Ministry were quick to point out that they were able to include a guy who was protesting the National ID. I was interviewed by a newspaper last night where I told them that I was still against it, but that I was more worried about all of the other infrastructure trying to get approved and that it was necessary to be on the inside to derail the stupid stuff. I said I was still against the National ID, but that at this point my strategy was to try to force the ministry to keep their word and confine the use of the National ID just to paperwork in local governments as they promised and contain the risk. I don't know if they will quote me.

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