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Technology

US tech giants warn Hong Kong data law could drive them away

Google, Facebook and Twitter cite prosecution risks under privacy plans

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the government would address worries about the anti-doxxing law during the legislative process.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Leading international technology companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter have warned Hong Kong of a potential exodus if the financial hub presses ahead with planned changes to its privacy laws that would make companies and staff legally liable for doxxing activities on their platforms.

In a letter sent to the local privacy watchdog, an industry group representing 15 top technology companies in Asia voiced concerns over the proposal. The companies say it will curtail free expression and jeopardize the safety of their local employees, who could be prosecuted in case of failure to comply with authorities' requests to remove content.

Hong Kong introduced amendments to its data protection laws in May following the citywide protests in 2019, during which demonstrators posted personal information of police officers and government officials online. At the same time, government supporters published personal particulars of pro-democracy lawmakers, activists and journalists on various websites. The practice of putting people's personal information online so they can be harassed by others is known as doxxing.

The data protection proposals suggest that violators of the "anti-doxxing law" receive as much as five years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($128,800).

Industry group Asia Internet Coalition called doxxing "a matter of serious concern" but said the proposed law would prompt technology companies to "refrain from investing and offering their services in Hong Kong, thereby depriving Hong Kong businesses and consumers, whilst also creating new barriers to trade."

The letter, sent to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data on June 25, was seen by Nikkei Asia. The coalition's members include Apple, Facebook, Google, Expedia, Amazon.com, Line, LinkedIn, Rakuten, SAP, Airbnb, Twitter, Grab, Yahoo, Booking.com and Cloudflare.

A spokesperson for the Singapore-based association said that the letter shares concerns of Asia's tech industry and it is "inaccurate" to say that any members plan to quit the Hong Kong market.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday defended the need for the new law at her weekly news conference, citing previous doxxing incidents and popular support for data protection.

"We understand legislation work sometimes can trigger worries, which we can address during the process. Yet we should prove our case by practice," Lam said, likening the implementation of the anti-doxxing law to that of the national security law Beijing imposed on the city a year ago.

"The imposition of the security law ultimately did not lead to the things that those who smeared the law claimed it would," she said.

Global technology businesses have faced an increasingly uncertain future in Hong Kong since the imposition of the security law to clamp down on political dissent. Major tech companies said they have since suspended requests from Hong Kong law enforcement bodies for user data.

Facebook refused all 202 Hong Kong government requests for user information in the six months after the security law took effect, including data related to Instagram, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Oculus, the company's transparency report showed.

The Asia Internet Coalition's letter, sent with seven pages of recommended changes to the proposed legal amendments, said that the vague definition of "doxxing acts" would create "problematic ambiguity." The amendments describe doxxing broadly as the disclosure of information without one's consent to "threaten, intimidate or harass" other people or "cause psychological harm."

The letter also noted that the prohibition on republishing personal information already available in the public domain could deter the free flow of information, which allows Hong Kong to retain its status as an international trading hub.

The group emphasized that criminal prosecution of employees upon noncompliance is "unnecessary and excessive" as these platforms have no editorial control over users' doxxing actions, and most services are provided by offshore regional headquarters.

"The possibility of prosecuting subsidiary employees will create uncertainties for businesses and affect Hong Kong's development as an innovation and technology hub," the association wrote, noting that a free and open internet has been critical for Hong Kong's growth in those areas.

Facebook declined to comment on the letter, saying the AIC speaks for the company on the Hong Kong legislation. Google and Twitter have not responded to requests for comment.

Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, has requested a video meeting with Hong Kong's privacy commissioner to discuss the proposed amendments and offer recommendations to ease companies' concerns.

But the privacy watchdog in Hong Kong has rejected claims that the new law would affect freedom of expression or the interests of foreign investors.

"The amendments only aim to address unlawful doxxing activities, where the scope of offense will be clearly stipulated in the legislation," Privacy Commissioner Ada Chung told Hong Kong Commercial Radio, adding that all stakeholders' opinions are welcome and that she would meet with the coalition soon to understand the group's views.

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