A new national security law has turned Hong Kong into a battleground for the United States and China's escalating war over control of the global internet. Whether Hong Kong eventually falls behind China’s Great Firewall will depend on how strictly Beijing enforces the regulation, and how willing technology platforms are to stand up in the face of Communist Party pressure—particularly when their business interests are at stake. Some tech giants like Google and Facebook have already paused accepting requests for data from Hong Kong authorities. Others, like Chinese-owned TikTok, have decided to pull out of the region altogether.
The new law was imposed by the Chinese Communist Party with little input from local Hong Kong officials, and went into effect on the evening of June 30. It establishes a wide-reaching security apparatus with the power to crack down on a range of political actions, including separatism and subversion of state power. Civil rights groups around the world quickly decried the measure, and over the past week, activists, researchers, and other vulnerable groups began scrambling to protect themselves from its potential legal consequences.
On Monday, Hong Kong’s newly established national security committee released rules clarifying how portions of the law will be implemented. “The police can request online platform service providers to hand over information about their users, or remove content the government deems to be ‘endangering’ national security,” says Jenny Wang, a strategic adviser at the Human Rights Foundation. “This is a huge threat to internet freedom and the anonymity that Hong Kong protesters have relied on in the past year to organize and exchange ideas.”
If companies like Google and Facebook refuse to comply, they could be fined thousands of dollars, and their local employees may be sent to prison for up to six months. The rules also specifically extend beyond Hong Kong’s borders: For example, Facebook could be compelled to produce information about a user in the US if Hong Kong authorities deemed their posts a threat to Chinese national security. “Regardless of how often such requests are made, even the possibility of such harsh penalties for protecting user data will leave foreign businesses in an incredibly difficult position,” Jeremy Daum, a senior research fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center in Beijing, wrote on Twitter. “They may well be left with no choice but to leave [Hong Kong], which may be the goal.”
After the implementation rules were released, companies including Google, Zoom, Microsoft, and Telegram all said they would temporarily stop accepting requests for user data from the Hong Kong government. “Zoom supports the free and open exchange of thoughts and ideas,” a spokesperson for the company said in an email, adding that it was actively monitoring the situation in Hong Kong. Representatives from Microsoft and Google said the companies were currently reviewing the law and had paused accepting user requests from the city. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement given to The New York Times said it was pausing user data requests pending further assessment of the law, “including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts.” Apple, which relies on the Chinese market for a significant portion of its sales and hosts iCloud servers in the country, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We believe that the pause in accepting data requests is a prudent move,” says Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director and senior international counsel at the digital rights group Access Now. He says tech companies need time to unpack the national security law and the powers it gives authorities in Hong Kong, as well as “how that’s going to impact the ability of their firms—and an increasing number of other companies—to respect human rights in their operations there.”
In the long run, with the regulations imposed by China in place, many tech platforms may find it untenable to stay in Hong Kong. “This is an opportunity for them to stand with their users and protect their rights against authoritarianism,” says Wang, from the Human Rights Foundation. But in so doing, tech companies risk the chance they might be blocked in the city, or get their employees arrested. Within China, many Western websites and services are already inaccessible due to government censorship.
Google, Zoom, Microsoft, and Facebook did not respond to questions about when they may resume accepting data requests from Hong Kong. In the past, US tech companies have declined a significant portion of requests they’ve received from the city’s authorities, according to their own transparency reports—a decision they could be punished for under the new national security law. In the last six months of 2019, Google received 48 requests from Hong Kong, and produced data in response to 77 percent. During the same time period, Facebook handed over data in less than half of the 236 requests it received. Tech platforms generally say they only respond to data requests if they abide by all applicable laws, such as requirements that authorities obtain a court order.
One social media company has already pulled out of Hong Kong entirely. “In light of recent events, we've decided to stop operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong,” a spokesperson for TikTok said in a statement. The company, which is owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, isn't giving up much; it says its business in the city is small and unprofitable. ByteDance also already operates Douyin, a popular sister app to TikTok that’s only available in China.
TikTok's strong stance in Hong Kong may have more to do with demonstrating its independence to US lawmakers, who have raised their own security concerns over the app's potential connections to the Chinese government. During a Fox News interview earlier this week, secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the US was looking at banning Chinese apps, “especially TikTok.” In response to the criticism, TikTok has repeatedly denied that the Chinese Communist Party wields any influence over its policies, and has worked to distance itself from Beijing. Leaving Hong Kong may help TikTok to avoid further scrutiny, but the departure could also be a harbinger of what could happen to many tech platforms that currently operate there.
But it’s also possible that authorities in Beijing will choose to only selectively enforce the new national security law, and largely allow tech platforms to operate in the region with little issue. The regulation includes a vague technical caveat, which says service providers may be excused for failing to comply with the law if “the technology necessary” was “not reasonably available.” It's not clear how broadly the exception might be interpreted. And then there are the public relations considerations. “For China to lose all of these companies would be a heavy blow to the government’s international image, and the Chinese government cares about appearances very much,” says Wang.
Left hanging in the balance are the millions of people who call Hong Kong home, where the new national security law is already having a chilling effect. Several demonstrators have reportedly already been arrested for violating the measure, including a 15-year-old girl. Bloomberg reported that downloads of the privacy-focused messaging app Signal are soaring in the city, and people are rushing to wipe any incriminating information from their social media profiles. But not all dissent has disappeared, and some protesters are simply switching up their tactics. “The popular protest slogan 'Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times' (光復香港, 時代革命) has since been deemed to be subversive and illegal under the new law. However, Hongkongers have remained resilient," says Wang. "The latest protest ‘signage’ to emerge was a blank piece of paper."