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TECH PARIAH

China’s Great Firewall has finally come to Hong Kong’s internet

Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Getting around the firewall.
  • Mary Hui
By Mary Hui

Reporter

Published Last updated

Hong Kong police were granted vast new powers overnight as part of their new mandate to enforce the city’s sweeping national security law enacted last week.

In addition to the authority to conduct warrantless searches, freeze and seize assets, restrict suspects’ movement, and intercept communications, police can now order platforms and internet service providers to remove content. Refusal to comply with take-down orders are punishable by large fines and imprisonment, as well as the seizure of devices.

“We are already behind the de facto firewall,” said Charles Mok, a lawmaker representing the technology sector, in a tweet.

Given the Hong Kong government’s wholesale ban last week of the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” a key test case will be whether and how authorities will demand the removal of the slogan on online platforms.

In response to the national security law, major tech companies announced yesterday that they have suspended processing user information requests from Hong Kong authorities. Companies pushing back against the city’s government include Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as well as the messaging services WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal. Apple has said that it is “assessing” the city’s new security law, and that it never processes data requests from the Hong Kong government directly.

Zoom, the video conferencing platform, also announced today in a statement to Hong Kong Free Press that it will pause its processing of data requests from the Hong Kong government. LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, made a similar announcement in a statement to Quartz.

Separately, TikTok, owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, announced today that it was pulling out of Hong Kong “in light of recent events.” The social video app has come under particular scrutiny for its censorship of topics deemed sensitive by Beijing, and fears that it shares user data with the Chinese government. It has also been trying to distance itself from ByteDance, most notably by hiring former Disney executive Kevin Meyer as its new CEO in May. So far, that strategy does not seem to have worked: last week, TikTok was one of dozens of Chinese apps that India banned. Meyer personally guaranteed the Indian government that it would not comply with Chinese government orders for user data.

The latest moves by the Hong Kong government, as laid out in a 116-page document (pdf) detailing expanded police powers, effectively dismantles Hong Kong’s free internet. Any content that authorities suspect to be in breach of the national security law—which criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign collusion under vaguely defined terms—can now be ordered to be removed.  The government and law enforcement officials can also order service and platform providers to hand over user identification details, and to decrypt messages. Companies risk a HK$100,000 fine ($12,900) and six months’ jail for non-compliance.

The question now is whether the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which all have offices in Hong Kong, can continue operations in the city if they refuse to cooperate with authorities on the security law. Though all three tech giants are blocked in China, the Chinese market represents a large source of advertising revenue for the companies. And while Hong Kong has long been a popular business hub thanks in part to its unfettered internet, foreign firms will now have to substantially re-evaluate their presences there as China-style internet controls look set to become the norm in the city.

Even before the enactment of the security law, the US had signalled misgivings over American companies’ presence in Hong Kong, citing worries over threats to US persons’ data. Last month, a telecoms committee under the US justice department urged the Federal Communications Commission to block approval of a Google- and Facebook-backed undersea internet cable that would have been the first direct US-Hong Kong connection, saying the cable “would expose US communications traffic to collection” by Beijing. And just yesterday, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the administration was considering banning Chinese social media apps.

This story has been updated to included responses from more companies.

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