Hong Kong’s internet service providers will have no choice but to help police with national security requests now that officers have been given “unfettered” power, analysts say, warning that online privacy and freedom could be under threat.
Under the new national security law Beijing has imposed on Hong Kong, police no longer have to seek court orders before requiring internet users or “relevant service providers”– believed to cover social media platforms and also firms – to remove information or help with an investigation.
Lento Yip Yuk-fai, chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association, said that businesses would have to comply with the new law when police made requests.
“In the past, police would need court orders before asking the providers for assistance. But the force has sometimes contacted our members and made the requests without the orders. There were companies that did not know police were supposed to secure court orders first and they would just cooperate with the force,” Yip said on Thursday.
“Now the law has given police the power to ask the companies for assistance, we will just have to do it … there is no resisting this.”
He said that in many countries, police had to get a court order before seeking a service provider’s assistance. Foreign internet service providers could now be less tempted to expand into Hong Kong, he added.
The sweeping security law also gives police the power to search electronic devices that may contain evidence of a national security offence. The law also says the Hong Kong government shall take “necessary measures” to strengthen supervision and regulation over national security matters on the internet.
Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Information Technology Federation, said that international social media giants such as Facebook had now been put in a difficult situation.
While some of these companies had offices in Hong Kong, their headquarters and servers were not in the city, Fong said. So if police issued a request for these platforms to take down certain posts or to assist in their investigations, it would be the overseas headquarters that made the decision, he added.
“We will have to see how Facebook reacts to such requests in the future. There are concerns here [about the law]. Freedom of speech could be curtailed,” he said.
Facebook and Twitter have for months been popular vehicles for Hongkongers to call for international attention on local affairs. Posts promoting Hong Kong independence can often be seen.
Hong Kong national security law full text
A Facebook spokesman said: “We will review the details of the national security law to understand the implications for Facebook and the people who use our services. We believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and share concerns about the impact of this law on free expression in Hong Kong.”
In a statement, Twitter said it was committed to working with governments around the world to encourage healthy behaviour on the platform.
“Twitter exercises due diligence to respect local laws in jurisdictions around the world, and duly reviews all legal processes,” it said.
The company said it had dedicated contact channels for law enforcement around the world and responded to legal processes in accordance with applicable laws.
But it added: “Our policy is always to err on the side of freedom of expression, as appropriate and within the parameters of the law.”
LinkedIn issued a short statement on Friday saying it was “committed to creating a safe, trusted and professional environment”.
Simon Young Ngai-man, associate law dean at the University of Hong Kong, said the new national security legislation had given police “unfettered power” to require publishers and internet service providers to delete information and provide help.
“There is no criteria on what information may or may not be deleted,” he said.
“Subversion and terrorism crimes are broader and relate to subverting state power or coercing the [central government]. Hence, if the online material broadly relates to these two areas or invites foreign collusion to sanction [China], then certainly the material will be taken down.”
IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok said there were fewer internet safeguards for Hongkongers now that the law had been introduced.
“I am also worried that the law is not clear in the way it talks about regulating the internet but does not say how,” he said. “Does it mean that local laws need to be amended so the internet can be managed better?”
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