Google, Facebook and Twitter all operate openly in Hong Kong like they do in America but that could be about to change because of China’s new national security law. These companies and several others have all said they won’t accept data requests from China for people in Hong Kong, effectively refusing to become part of the communist party’s security apparatus.
“We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a Monday statement…
TikTok, a buzzy short-video platform owned by Chinese technology giant Bytedance Inc., said Tuesday morning in China that it would pull its app from Google and Apple Inc.’s app stores in Hong Kong within a week, in light of “recent developments.”
In separate statements, Twitter and Alphabet Inc. -owned Google said they paused all data and information requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately when the law went into effect last week.
The national security law is so broad and so vague that people could potentially be jailed for years over relatively innocuous statements online. In fact, the NY Times points out that the law isn’t limited to regulating the speech of people living in Hong Kong. In theory, Chinese officials could demand information on anyone using these platforms to talk about Hong Kong, even people living in the U.S.
Based on the law, the Hong Kong authorities have the remit to dictate the way people around the world talk about the city’s contested politics. A Facebook employee could potentially be arrested in Hong Kong if the company failed to hand over user data on someone based in the United States who Chinese authorities deemed a threat to national security.
“If Facebook refuses to give national security data, its service may be terminated in Hong Kong, and it will lose access to the Hong Kong market,” said Glacier Kwong of Keyboard Frontline, a nongovernmental organization that monitors digital rights in Hong Kong.
“It’s not impossible that this will happen,” Ms. Kwong added. “China often uses its market and boycotting to make foreign companies listen to their demands.”
One option that might allow some companies to sidestep the problem is to simply move their data out of Hong Kong. That would give China less leverage to claim it had a right to the data for “national security” purposes, which in this case could mean someone posting a video mocking the Chinese national anthem.
Google announce plans to open a large data center in Hong Kong a decade ago. The photo above is from the 2011 groundbreaking ceremony. However, in 2013 Google reversed course and decided it would not open a data center in the city. The reasons for the change of heart were never spelled out but earlier this year Hong Kong Free Press pointed to a possible explanation. It involves a lawsuit between “Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks…and a locally owned data center company.”
Data security is the top priority for data businesses. However, in the court verdict, the judge ruled for HKSTP and against the data warehouse operators, saying the landlord can enter their customers’ data storage spaces at all times.
More importantly, it is clearly stated that “although reasonable notice is required, there is no right for the customer to refuse entry to HKSTP.” This is a potentially dangerous judgement if we, as Hong Kong citizens, value the privacy and security of data owners…
If HKSTP, a public statutory body, is allowed to access their customers’ data storage spaces at any time, it means we are allowing the government to access data of citizens and businesses as a means to facilitate and control data centres in Hong Kong.
In short, Google probably had a sense which way the wind was blowing in Hong Kong and chose not to invest millions in a data center that would give China leverage to make future demands of the company. In this case that was clearly a good decision.
This is just the latest front in an ongoing battle over what Chinese state media has referred to as China’s “alternative model” of human rights. That alternative has already been embraced by dozens of other authoritarian countries at the UN Human Rights Council. Countries like Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela and Iran have no problem with the idea that the central government should determine what people inside their borders can see and say.
Ultimately, it’s good to see American companies refusing to kowtow to Xi Jinping’s communist authoritarian state, but refusing to do so may cost these companies their access to Hong Kong.