The number of tech giants that refuse to hand over their users' data to the Hong Kong government is increasing after the recent enactment of China's National Security Law.
The first company to announce its position was Telegram, a mobile messaging app widely used by Hong Kong protesters to discuss protest strategies and to coordinate actions during June 2019.
After the Hong Kong Committee for the Safeguarding of National Security, an entity created under the National Security Law, published the details of the application of the law on July 6, other internet companies, such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Google , Twitter, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Zoom followed suit.
Meanwhile, TitkTok, a video-publishing app, announced its plans to exit the Hong Kong market, without referring to the law in its statement.
Unlimited powers of the National Security Police
Under article 43 of the law, the authorities of the National Security Police have the power to search private properties without a court order, detain suspects, freeze assets, intercept communications and order internet service providers already the operators of the platforms that eliminate and block access to content, and suspend services to users.
If these do not comply with the order, the National Security Police can obtain a court order to confiscate the corresponding electronic devices, take measures to remove content and require them to provide identification records or assistance with decoding.
The power of the National Security Police to compel local internet providers to limit access to online content and suspend user services without legal proceedings could be considered as a legal basis for a Hong Kong version of the Great Firewall of China, which blocks user access to “illegal” content.
Before the meeting of the Committee for the Safeguarding of National Security, Telegram announced on July 5 that it would not release any information related to its Hong Kong users “until an international consensus is reached regarding the political changes underway in the city” .
Expressing yourself is a crime
Although Telegram has never released information to the Hong Kong government, its privacy terms state that the company “will cooperate with the authorities in matters related to terrorism.”
However, the imprecise definition of terrorism in Hong Kong's security law has forced Telegram to make Hong Kong an exception.
In July, the Hong Kong Government's statement that the slogan “Free Hong Kong, revolution of our time” represents Hong Kong's independence and the subversive speech is the latest in a long list of evidence that the security law is will apply arbitrarily to stifle freedom of expression.
Even more alarming, eight people have been arrested in the first week of July just for showing blank sheets of paper, a silent protest that the Police declared as a potential breach of the security law:
Now, HK police will arrest HKers for subversion, simply holding blank papers in a mall to protest (Stand News photos)
The warning in english on the purple flag (RTHK photo)
The regime will arrest HKers and makeup the reason for prosecute, NSL is the tool for that pic.twitter.com/hop9gfeyxt
– Patrick (@PatrickinHK) July 7, 2020
Now, the Hong Kong Police will arrest Hong Kong people for subversion, for the simple fact of holding blank sheets to protest in a shopping center (photos by The Stand News)
The notice in English written on the purple flag (photo by RTHK)
The regime will arrest Hong Kong people and invent reasons to prosecute them, the NSL is the tool for that.
Tech giants crack down on breach
Although they made their statements later, Google and Twitter told reporters that it would have stopped processing users' requests for information as early as July 1, when the security law officially took effect in Hong Kong.
Facebook waited until July 6 to do the same.
Google, Twitter and Facebook have been banned in China for many years; although Google and Facebook have offices in Hong Kong. WhatsApp, the Facebook mobile messaging application, is the most popular communication tool in the city.
Microsoft-owned LinkedIn said on July 7 that the platform had suspended processing of Hong Kong applications while reviewing the security law.
LinkedIn established a joint venture in Mainland China for its Chinese version that complies with the country's censorship framework. Currently, users of the Hong Kong service are not subject to the same restrictions.
Video conferencing app Zoom said it has halted the processing of data requests from the Hong Kong government.
But in June, it suspended the accounts of a US-based group of Chinese human rights activists after they commemorated the crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
The Zoom account of activist Lee Cheuk-yan, who lives in Hong Kong, was also suspended, allegedly under pressure from the mainland Chinese authorities.
All of the tech giants that have suspended the delivery of data from their Hong Kong users have underscored their commitment to protecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy of their users.
A major absence is that of Apple, which has cooperated greatly with the censorship of mainland China; The company said it would “analyze” the implication of this law in its business before making a decision.
More curious was the sudden announcement by TikTok that the company would withdraw from the Hong Kong market.
There are two versions of TikTok, which are owned by the Chinese company Byetedance. The Chinese version is Douyu and works within the Chinese censorship requests. The global version states that it would not release any of its users' information to the Chinese government.
However, legal action in the United States has led to TikTok being accused of sending US user data to the mainland in December 2019. Company employees also revealed that they had been pressured by their superiors in mainland China to censor the content of the global platform ..
The TikTok market in Hong Kong is quite small at around 150,000 users.
Worst case scenario: Hong Kong Great Firewall
To date, the Hong Kong Government has not directly responded to the collective action of these tech giants; But reports of the government's plans to strengthen control over the internet have been circulating since August 2019, when protests against China's extradition law were at their peak.
Some unverified claims were also circulated in the local online community suggesting that the possible targets of the crackdown were Telegram and the Reddit forum LIGHK. Back then, however, the Government had no legal tools with which to crack down on online content, except by obtaining a court order.
With the enforcement of the national security law, the worst case scenario for these companies that do not comply with the directives would be the total blocking of their platforms. This would leave Hong Kong people unable to access non-cooperative websites without evasion tools.
Hong Kong people are preparing for the worst so far: On June 30, searches for private virtual networks increased by 321% compared to the average daily search on other days of the month.