Photo/IllutrationImage of Mangamura, a pirated manga site. Part of the image is modified. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Telecommunications giant NTT group will block access to three “pirated manga websites” for customers of its companies, making it the first in the industry to comply with a government request to take the step.

But NTT group’s announcement on April 23 has raised concerns among experts who fear the move could be tantamount to widening censorship by authorities.

Until now, such requests by the government have been limited to websites containing child pornography, even though there is no legal basis for blocking access to them. The government has maintained that it has to resort to an “emergency measure” under the Criminal Law, given the extent of damage those websites cause and a lack of alternative ways to address the issue.

NTT group’s announcement follows the government’s April 13 request for Internet service providers to shut down access in the face of a surge in copyright infringements due to the availability of pirated manga websites.

The sites allow viewers to read digital comic books for free, without permission from the publishers. The three sites targeted are Mangamura, Anitube and Miomio, which were named by the government.

NTT Docomo Inc., NTT Communications Corp. and NTT Plala Inc. will start to shut down their users’ access to the sites as soon as they are ready.

As of April 23, however, content on the three named sites was already inaccessible, likely due to the operators’ decision to shut them down.

It remains to be seen whether rival carriers will follow suit.

A public relations official at Softbank Corp. said, “We understand that it is an issue we should respond to urgently, but we also need to carefully discuss the matter.”

KDDI Corp. said it is weighing how to respond.

NTT group’s decision came after legal experts held a hastily arranged symposium in Tokyo on April 22 to sound the alarm about the wisdom of blocking Internet access.

Joji Shishido, professor of the Constitution at the University of Tokyo, voiced concern at the symposium about the government naming “malicious” sites arbitrarily and urging companies to block access.

He said the government’s request “could amount to censorship” and “open the floodgates of widening the scope of the block.”

According to the Cabinet Office, shutting down access to specific sites has been implemented by 42 countries, including the United States and European nations.

But Jun Murai, professor of information studies at Keio University, raised doubts about the effectiveness of the step in those countries.

“It is not easy technically to achieve it, and there is no consensus in acknowledging the effectiveness of blocking sites,” he said. “I believe that the shared understanding is that it is not effective after all.”

Another symposium participant said technical uncertainty involved in shutting down access could lead to other sites being blocked too.

The main reason the government has moved to recommend the blocks is the estimated financial cost of copyright infringement.

Damage from Mangamura is estimated to have been worth 320 billion yen ($2.94 billion) over the six months from last September, according to the Content Overseas Distribution Association (CODA), an entity comprising content holders and copyright groups, which works with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The figure was calculated by multiplying the number of visits to Mangamura by the average sale price of comic books and magazines, according to CODA.

But some questioned the credibility of the estimate, suspecting that it is inflated.

Takero Goto, a senior CODA official, conceded that it was a rough indication figured out at the request from the government.

Leading publishers that have hailed the proposed block did not comment on the NTT group’s announcement on April 23.

(This article was compiled from reports by Shinya Tokushima and Tomohiro Iwata.)