As Hong Kong Law Expanded to Control Internet, Social Media Companies Promise to Withhold User Data

Posted: Jul 07, 2020 1:15 PM
As Hong Kong Law Expanded to Control Internet, Social Media Companies Promise to Withhold User Data

Source: (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

Digital communication companies Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Telegram, TikTok, Twitter, WhatsApp and Zoom will take steps to prevent Hong Kong authorities from exploiting their platform to incriminate Hong Kong citizens.

On Monday, Hong Kong authorities annexed Article 43 of the National Security Law to include provisions for unwarranted searches, asset confiscation, and control over the internet and communications. If the Hong Kong authorities desginate an online message as an “offence endangering national security,” they may request the message be removed by the user or platform. Should both parties fail to comply, the authorities will demand the platform turn over user identification data.

“Relevant officers may also apply to the magistrate for a warrant under specific circumstances to authorise police officers to request the relevant service provider to provide the identification record or decryption assistance as the case requires,” the revised article reads.

Some apps, like Telegram, have pledged to refuse requests from Hong Kong authorities to disclose user data to them. 

“We understand the importance of protecting the right to privacy of our Hong Kong users under these circumstances,” a spokesman for Telegram told HKFP. “Accordingly, Telegram does not intend to process any data requests related to its Hong Kong users until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city.”

Although the spokesman claimed that Telegram has not yet shared user data with Hong Kong authorities, its privacy policy contains an exemption for users legally suspected of terrorism. Other companies, like Facebook and LinkedIn, have more generic clauses for “harmful or illegal activity,” “investigations or regulatory inquiries” and "emergencies," among other concerns. 

Zoom has incurred criticism recently for suppressing discourse that disparages China, but it too intends to deny data-sharing requests. “We’re actively monitoring the developments in Hong Kong SAR, including any potential guidance from the U.S. government. We have paused processing any data requests from, and related to, Hong Kong SAR,” a spokesperson for Zoom told HKFP.

According to a report by the New York Times, Google refused several requests to disclose the information of Hong Kong people during the 2019 protests. “We see the trend. It’s not just that they’re making more requests, it’s the growing power in the hands of the authorities to do this arbitrarily,” pro-democracy lawmaker Charles Mok told NYT. 

Under the National Security Law, authorities would have the jurisdiction to arrest employees of any company that refused data access. This could require that they pull out of the Hong Kong market altogether.

TikTok will completely withdraw its services from Hong Kong. "In light of recent events, we've decided to stop operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong," a TikTok spokesperson confirmed to CNN Business, but the company has not conveyed any further details.

Although TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in China, TikTok has repudiated claims of control by Chinese state authorities. India banned TikTok and 58 other apps from Indian users on June 29, citing threats to the sovereignty and security of the country.

The United States is also considering a ban on TikTok. In an interview with Fox News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Americans of the risk that TikTok might place their user information "in the hands of the Communist Party." 

"We are taking this very seriously and we are certainly looking at it," he said.

Apple and Microsoft have not stopped complying with data requests, but each has confirmed that they are reviewing the new law and considering changes to their operations in Hong Kong.