Hong Kong Security Law Sets Stage for Global Internet Fight

As Hong Kong grapples with a draconian new security law, the tiny territory is emerging as the front line in a global fight between the United States and China over censorship, surveillance and the future of the internet.

Long a bastion of online freedom on the digital border of China’s tightly managed internet, Hong Kong’s uneasy status changed radically in just a week. The new law mandates police censorship and covert digital surveillance, rules that can be applied to online speech across the world.

Now, the Hong Kong government is crafting web controls to appease the most prolific censor on the planet, the Chinese Communist Party. And the changes threaten to further inflame tensions between China and the United States, in which technology itself has become a means by which the two economic superpowers seek to spread influence and undercut each other.

Caught in the middle are the city’s seven million residents, online records of rollicking political debate — some of which may now be illegal — and the world’s largest internet companies, which host, and by extension guard, that data.

A standoff is already brewing. Many big tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Zoom and LinkedIn, have said in the past two days that they would temporarily stop complying with requests for user data from the Hong Kong authorities. The Hong Kong government, in turn, has made it clear that the penalty for noncompliance with the law could include jail time for company employees.

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.”

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Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

TikTok, a video app owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance, went even further than its American rivals, saying it would withdraw its app from stores in Hong Kong and make it inoperable to users there within a few days. The company has said that managers outside China call the shots on key aspects of its business, including rules about data.

While it is not clear how widely Hong Kong’s government will enforce the law, the looming legal fights could determine whether the city falls behind China’s digital Iron Curtain or becomes a hybrid where online speech and communications are selectively policed.

The technological Cold War between China and the United States is playing out on various fronts around the world. The trade war has ensnared Chinese tech giants like Huawei and ZTE, while American companies complain of industrial policies that favor Chinese businesses at home and subsidize them abroad. Beijing’s severe digital controls have kept companies like Google and Facebook from operating their services in mainland China.

Though U.S. internet companies still earn billions of dollars in Chinese ad revenue, a decision to go along with the Hong Kong rules would risk the ire of Washington, where there has been bipartisan condemnation of the security law. New blocks on American businesses could also trigger retaliation.

The American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said on Monday that the Trump administration was considering blocking some Chinese apps, which he has called a threat to national security.

“I don’t want to get out in front of the president, but it’s something we are looking at,” he said in an interview on Fox News.

A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Zhao Lijian, defended the law at a news conference on Tuesday, saying that it would make a more “stable and harmonious” Hong Kong.

“The horses will run faster, the horses will run happier, the stocks will sizzle hotter, and the dancers will dance better. We have full confidence in Hong Kong,” he said, alluding to a quote from the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping about the city.

Google’s experience over the past year shows the fraught position that the largest U.S. internet companies are in. As the Hong Kong police struggled to contain sprawling protests across the city in 2019, they turned to internet companies for help. Overall data requests and takedown orders from police more than doubled in the second half of 2019 from the first half to over 7,000 requests, according to a pro-democracy lawmaker, Charles Mok.

Credit…Kin Cheung/Associated Press

The police asked Google to take down a number of posts, including a confidential police manual that had leaked online, a YouTube video from the hacking group Anonymous supporting the protests, and links to a website that let the public look up personal details about police officers, according to the company’s transparency report.

In each case, Google said no.

The new law could punish the company with fines, equipment seizures and arrests if it again declines takedown and data requests. It also would allow the police to potentially seize equipment from companies that host such content.

“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,” Mr. Mok said, adding that “some of the local smaller platforms will be worried about the legal consequences and they may comply” with government requests.

Several small local apps associated with the protest movement have already shut down. Eat With You, which labeled restaurants based on their political affiliation, stopped operating the day after the security law was enacted last week. On Sunday, another service that mapped pro-protester and pro-police businesses on Google Maps suspended its services, citing “changing social circumstances.”

Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Individuals, as well, have taken to self-censoring. Many have taken down posts, removed “likes” for some pro-democracy pages and even deleted accounts on platforms like Twitter, according to activists. Fears that WhatsApp would hand over data drove a spike in downloads of the encrypted chat app Signal. WhatsApp, though, had no recent data requests from Hong Kong police, according to a person familiar with the matter.

People in Hong Kong have also quickly embraced the types of coded online speech that flourish in China, where internet police and censors patrol the web. One slogan, which the authorities have said could be illegal, was changed from “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” to “shopping in Hong Kong, Times Square,” a reference to a local shopping mall.

In other cases, posters abbreviated the slogan based on Cantonese phonetics, writing simply “GFHG, SDGM.” The unofficial anthem of the protests, “Glory to Hong Kong,” has had its lyrics converted into numbers that sound roughly like the lyrics. “05 432 680, 04 640 0242,” goes the opening.

Companies, meanwhile, have the option of shifting data away from Hong Kong. Lento Yip, chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association, said he noticed an uptick in businesses relocating servers out of the city in June, though he wasn’t certain about their motivations.

“From a business aspect, some websites or content providers might just move to other places. It doesn’t cost much and it’s pretty easy,” Mr. Yip said.

For companies like Amazon and Google, which have large data centers in Hong Kong, such a move would be neither cheap nor easy. And their other options are equally complicated.

Moving all employees out of the city as well would insulate firms from arrests, but it may not be feasible. Facebook in some cases restricts speech based on geographies.

There are potential technical workarounds that could help guard companies against the law, according to Edmon Chung, a member of the board of directors of the Internet Society of Hong Kong, a nonprofit dedicated to the open development of the internet.

The rules stipulate that tech companies may avoid takedown requests if the technology necessary to comply with some rules is “not reasonably available,” which Mr. Chung said opened up the possibility of using encryption, storing content in multiple places and other methods of avoiding scrutiny.

He added that the response from both abroad and inside Hong Kong could still go a long way toward shaping the law and how it is applied.

“If the people in Hong Kong stand up to this, it might not be as bad as what is in mainland China,” Mr. Chung said.

“How Hong Kong people get around it and circumvent it and create new types of speech to continually challenge the party line is something that remains to be seen, and I remain hopeful that the free spirit in Hong Kong will hold up,” he said.

Raymond Zhong contributed reporting. Lin Qiqing and Claire Fu contributed research.

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