Law in the Internet Society

How China is exporting its digital dictatorship to Hong Kong thereby challenging GAFA companies

With the aim of reducing freedom of expression to a trickle in the “semi-autonomous” city of Hong Kong, a very recent illustration of this being the removal of the Tiananmen Square massacre remembrance statue on the University of Hong Kong campus, controlling the Internet ranks as a key priority for the local pro-Beijing government. In reaction to the 2019 massive pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party implemented a draconian legal framework concerning Hong Kong in June 2020, the so-called national security law, that aims to eliminate any form of protest in the city. Although freedom of speech is enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law and its Bill of Rights, this protection only applies to local legislation and not national laws imposed by mainland China, like the national security law. Article 43 of this law now allows censorship in Hong Kong of online resources that are “likely to constitute an offense endangering national security”.

Censorship system in China and its gradual implementation in Hong Kong

The Great Firewall in China is the expression used to describe Chinese sophisticated censorship system of online content. It blocks the access to foreign information sources, be it social networks like Facebook, search engines such as Google, websites like Wikipedia, or mobile apps. Thus, only Chinese alternatives are available like WeChat? and Baidu, which are tightly controlled by the CCP. The ultimate goal is to shape public opinion along the party line. The Great Firewall is the combination of legal regulations, technologies, and manipulation of online discussions. It is now known that the party employs between 500,000 and 2 million online commentators, the “50 Cent Army”, to create content in favor of the CCP, using their slogans and promoting the party’s narratives on China’s power.

For a very long time, Hong Kong was a bastion of press freedom; in 10 years, the city has dropped from 18th place to 80th place in the World Press Freedom Index set up by Reporters Without Borders. The CCP is progressively bringing its digital machinery to Hong Kong. Since June 2020, the local government has been blocking access to certain pro-democratic and anti-government websites. Local authorities directly ground their censorship policy on article 43 of the national security law. To this day, about ten websites have been banned, including the website HKChronicles that used to publish pro-democracy articles and detailed information about police violence, as well as the June 4th online museum on the Tiananmen massacre in September 2021. The museum had moved online after having been physically shut down by the police in June 2021.

One may ask how China will implement the Great Firewall in Hong Kong, since the city has enjoyed much freedom for a long time. It seems to me that the CCP will simply increase its control gradually, forcing the GAFA to make a choice, either comply with the new rules of the game or leave the city.

The dilemma of big tech companies in Hong Kong

Under the new national security law in Hong Kong, local authorities can request service providers to remove some online content and to communicate sensitive user data if a “threat to national security” is shown. Sanction for noncompliance consists in fines of up to 100,000 HK dollars ($12,903) and imprisonment for six months. Following the enactment of this law in June 2020, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and others announced that they would suspend their cooperation with the local government on data requests, as this could significantly compromise pro-democratic protesters. Yet, this position can only be a temporary one. For now, Google is the only company that publicly declared that it had eventually produced some data to the local government, as part of 3 responses (out of the 43 requests from the HK government). According to Google, the requests concerned threat to life and human trafficking issues, and the data communicated was not content data, just metadata.

In this regard, Hong Kong is the perfect case study to understand how big tech companies have become as powerful, if not more, than states. The scenario presented is one in which tech companies, that claim to defend freedom of speech and democratic values, detain personal data on individuals searched by an anti-democratic government. To me, this strongly resembles to an extradition situation but instead of a country A bargaining with a country B, the country A deals with a tech company. But what is the legitimacy of a private entity that is not politically and democratically entitled to make such decision? Would it be different and sufficient, if the tech company was backed-up by a state (GAFA stated they would only cooperate with the HK government if the request was approved by the US Justice Department)?

More recently, in September 2021, the HK Legislature passed amendments to anti-doxing regulations. Doxing refers to the disclosure of one’s personal data on the internet that favors harassment. Doxing has been particularly used as a tool of resistance by pro-democracy protesters in 2019 to threaten police officers (through Telegram in particular). In the same way, police officers have used this method against protesters (on a website called HKLeaks). The 2021 amendments, which aim to crack-down on dissidents, provide that participants in doxing can be fined of up to 1 million HK dollars (about $129,000) and five years' imprisonment, thereby significantly increasing the sanction for doxing. Because this new legislative arsenal exposes big tech companies’ employees to considerable criminal penalties related to what users post online, GAFA and others had threatened to stop offering their services in Hong Kong in July 2021. Now that the law has passed, the departure of these big tech companies seems increasingly likely. The other scenario, not to be ruled out, is collaboration with the HK government. In mainland China, Apple has already shown a willingness to cooperate with the Chinese government regarding censorship, removing hundreds of VPN apps from its mainland app store at the request of authorities. A choice must be made...

Sources : - Dan McDevitt? , Nikkei Asia

- Harriet Moynihan and Champa Patel, Chatham House

- Stephanie Kirchgaessner, The Guardian

- Elina Cheng, Hong Kong Free Press

- Pak Kiu, Reuters


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r2 - 23 Oct 2021 - 13:08:23 - EleonoreVarale
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