Days after China passed a national security law giving it wide-ranging powers over Hong Kong, major technology companies have suspended their responses to Hong Kong government requests, saying they will first reassess the law’s new controls. Much of Hong Kong’s future identity and the global Internet hinges on what the technology companies decide to do next in the region.
What’s the context?
Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997, when the territory was given to China under the condition that it retains some autonomy, including its economic system, for 50 years. As the Chinese firewall took hold, several technology companies were shut out, including Google and Facebook.
But with the quasi-independence afforded by “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong was integrated into the global Internet. Global technology companies were able to operate close to China without being subject to the country’s laws.
Hong Kong has been embroiled in protests after its legislature tried to pass an extradition bill that would allow the Chinese government to detain Hong Kong residents. Although the bill was eventually withdrawn, the demonstrations had already developed into a larger fight for democratic institutions.
What is the new national security law?
Announced by China In May, it was put into effect on July 1, without the involvement of local institutions. On the technology front, the new surveillance and censorship rules could subsume the territory into China’s Great Firewall. Indeed, experts have found the new law reminiscent of the mainland’s own cybersecurity laws.
The law criminalises four activities: “secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”. Some specific offences include damaging government buildings and lobbying against the Chinese government. The law also allows for a National Security Committee to investigate and prosecute violators.
The Hong Kong Police are given extensive new controls to censor Internet content, track people online, and seize electronic records. They can investigate Internet platforms and their data as well as order its deletion, and penalties for the companies include fines up to nearly $13,000 and six months jail time.
How have technology companies reacted?
The shift puts tech companies in a bind as to whether to accept the new data-sharing and censorship requirements of the Communist Party or leave the territory altogether. Their decisions will have significant weight on Hong Kong’s future as an international business hub, and on digital free speech as a whole.
Telegram was the first to make the move, saying it never had shared data with the Hong Kong authorities and will wait for an “international consensus”. Twitter’s statement said the company has “grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law”. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, said it will conduct a “human-rights” assessment. Signal said that it never had turned over user data to the HK police and that it has no data to hand over anyway.
TikTok is pulling out of the territory completely, but it is in a different situation. Owned by China-based ByteDance, Tik Tok doesn’t operate in China. ByteDance operates a similar application called Douyin in mainland China, and now onlookers have speculated whether Douyin would make inroads into Hong Kong (ByteDance told Reuters there are no such plans). Others have contextualised the move as self-protective, considering the fact that non-compliance with the law would irk Beijing. TikTok has only 150,000 users and little revenue in Hong Kong. ByteDance has repeatedly distanced itself from the Chinese government and positions itself as a global company. Its leadership has said its data is not stored in China and it would not censor for or provide data to the Chinese government.
Experts say tech companies could move operations to Taiwan to stay close to mainland China, or consider other Asian locations, or decide to forgo their espoused values and stay in the territory.
How have technology companies responded to China’s moves in the past?
Apple has consistently received the most flak for not resisting China enough. It’s one of the few Silicon Valley giants that isn’t blocked in mainland China with a large customer base and manufacturing operations. Apple has also complied with most of the Hong Kong government’s requests before the law came into force. It had also removed an app used by Hong Kong protestors to coordinate movements as well as hid its Taiwan flag emoji in the territory last year.
Microsoft does significant business in the country and has complied with requests before. Facebook and Twitter stay out of the country. Google pulled its operations in 2010, but beginning 2018, conversation arose about a potential re-entry. CEO Sundar Pichai later put those rumours to rest.
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What is the key takeaway?
This marks yet another step of national border disputes erecting new virtual walls between territories. The Internet’s pioneers, who had envisioned a global community online, say these government decisions lead to the creation of a “splinternet”.
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