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Tech giants face uncertain future in Hong Kong under security law

Commitments to protect user data under question as Beijing's influence grows

Fears are growing that the world's biggest tech companies will not be immune to Beijing's growing influence over the city. (Nikkei montage/Reuters)

HONG KONG -- The world's biggest tech companies have vowed to safeguard user data in Hong Kong following the imposition of a controversial national security law, but fears are growing that they will not be immune to Beijing's increased influence over the city.

Facebook and Google, among other global internet giants, have long operated freely in Hong Kong, a former British colony, untroubled by Chinese censors. Now many believe that the national security law -- which was passed by China's top lawmaking body last week and took effect immediately -- will fundamentally change how those companies operate.

"The Chinese Communist Party knows that simply lecturing Hong Kong people about national education is unlikely to make them more patriotic. ... They also need to restrict access to counter-narrative," said John Burns, a professor specializing in Chinese politics at the University of Hong Kong.

As the new law provides new tools for the government to restrict social media, "both local and international tech companies should be on alert," Burns warned.

The law provides for criminal penalties for secession, subversion of state power, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.

Offenders can be sentenced to life in prison, and because the legislation does not provide clear definitions, whether an action violates the law is open to the authorities' interpretation.

"It is quite likely that the new law will force Western social media companies to change their ways of operations," said Shan Wei, a research fellow specializing in Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. "They will have to face increasing pressure from the government on aspects like censorship and access to private data in the name of national security".

The new law would give police more power to demand information. In response, companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft say they have suspended processing requests for user data from Hong Kong authorities, citing the implications of the law as a major concern.

Using information obtained from tech companies to crack down on dissidents is not uncommon in China. One high-profile case happened in 2005, when a journalist in the central Chinese city of Changsha was sentenced to 10 years in jail after U.S. internet giant Yahoo gave Chinese authorities access to the journalist's email account, through which prosecutors managed to dig up politically sensitive messages.

Yahoo argued that it was complying with local laws. But its compliance sparked a wave of criticism, with the U.S. Congress launching an investigation into the case in 2007 and the company's co-founder Jerry Yang apologizing publically at a hearing. In 2013, Yahoo shuttered its email service in China.

Hong Kong police have also been collecting online data, including social media posts and chat records, to use as evidence for prosecutions, since demonstrations against an extradition law dragged the city into monthslong social unrest last year.

According to government data, Hong Kong police made 5,325 user-data disclosure requests and 4,175 information removal requests to internet companies in 2019, marking a significant increase from 3,440 and 38, respectively, the previous year.

The demand for social media data may grow further in coming months as Hong Kong braces for the Legislative Council election due in September. Pro-democracy protesters -- who lack centralized leadership -- often use social media and messaging apps to coordinate, evaluate tactics, disseminate information, and campaign for political action.

Fu King-wa, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center, described tech companies' refusal to comply with data requests in Hong Kong as "unusual."

"It shows that the national security law has really touched on their worries about the freedom of expression ... especially when there's so much international attention on the law," Fu said.

The origins of these tech companies may have also influenced their decision -- Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, and many others are headquartered in the U.S. "The companies are walking a tightrope between the U.S. and China and, given the U.S. government's reaction to the new national security law for Hong Kong, are being cautious," Burns said.

Indeed, Washington has taken a hardline against Beijing's handling of Hong Kong and threatened to hold any human rights violators accountable. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate approved the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which imposes sanctions on banks that conduct business with Chinese officials involved in cracking down on pro-democracy protesters.

But pushing back against Beijing does not come without risks. In 2010, shortly after Google decided to stop filtering out sensitive topics such as politics on its search engine in mainland China, the Silicon Valley heavyweight was forced out of the world's biggest internet market and has not managed to return since.

"The long-term future [of those companies] will depend on how harshly Beijing wants to push for integrating Hong Kong into [the country]" Shan said.

Fu of the University of Hong Kong agrees. As the new security law essentially gives sweeping power for local authorities to access information held by private entities, some mainland-style measures would likely be introduced to companies operating in Hong Kong, he said.

"For instance, they may require companies to set up a censorship department and take down platforms failing to comply. In extreme cases, some might have to cease operations in the city," he said. "Now it's just the beginning."

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