Following the enforcement of a controversial security law in Hong Kong last week by China, a number of technology companies, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, said they have suspended processing data user requests from Hong Kong police.
Going a step further, TikTok, among the 59 Chinese-owned applications recently banned in India, announced Monday that it would entirely withdraw its app from Hong Kong and leave the market “within days”.
The highly popular short-form video app, which has 1.5 lakh active users in the semi-autonomous city of 70 lakh people, told Reuters that it made the move because it was not clear if Hong Kong would now fall entirely under Beijing’s jurisdiction after the new law’s implementation.
Around the world, the app has clocked well over a billion downloads along with Douyin, the Chinese version of the app. It is now the second-most downloaded app, just behind Facebook’s WhatsApp.
TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, the world’s most valuable start-up, has itself raised privacy concerns over its purported links to the Chinese government. It has fended off criticism by maintaining that its data centres are located outside of China, and that none of its data is subject to Chinese law.
ByteDance has said that it would continue to provide Hong Kong users with TikTok’s mainland Chinese version, Douyin, which many have access to. However, the company said there were no plans to introduce Douyin in Hong Kong.
Why others might follow suit
Under the new national security law, internet companies and individuals have to remove or stop access to online content deemed dangerous for national security. With a court warrant, police can seize electronic devices, and failure to comply can invite a fine of HK$ 100,000 (around 97 lakh INR) and imprisonment for one year.
Internet providers can be punished with a fine of HK$ 100,000 and six- month prison. According to the new law, authorities have been explicitly given the power to jail those who refuse to provide user data.
Notably, as the rules are applicable around the world, employees at internet companies in Hong Kong could get arrested if they refuse to share information about people who are writing from any other country. The law would apply even if the identification record or decryption key related to national security is not located in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported.
American companies such as Facebook and Google, who have currently adopted a wait-and-watch policy, face a conundrum. If they continue operating in Hong Kong, they would be going against the prevailing political climate at home, where Chinese overtures in the city-state have caused widespread bipartisan anger. Additionally, their employees working in Hong Kong, or even those who transit through its borders, could face detention in case they refuse to comply with Hong Kong authorities over data-sharing requests.
Also, while US-based firms such as Facebook and Google are immensely popular in Hong Kong, the local market itself is relatively small for these companies, which have a massive international footprint.
What this could mean for Hong Kong
This could paint a grim picture for Hong Kong residents, who, like those in mainland China, would then only have access to applications behind the so-called ‘Great Firewall’.
On its part, the Hong Kong government has defended the new law, calling it comparable to national security legislations in other free societies.
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When the Chinese foreign ministry was asked about social media defying the new law, it said: “When the time comes, the horse will run more joyfully, the stock market will be more dynamic, and the dance will be better. We are full of confidence in the future of Hong Kong. Regarding the specific questions you mentioned, I think time will bring us the final answer.”
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