Sunday, May 29, 2016

[RTHK LTHK] What do you know about my hashtag?

Something is wrong about the upcoming elections in Hong Kong in 2016 and 2017, before they even have started. Our election watchdog, the Electoral Affairs Commission, apparently is telling all of us in Hong Kong to stay off the Internet and social media, or you may be breaking the law.

That may sound incredible in this day and age, when people’s lives revolve around social media, and all the messages they share among friends and strangers. 

But, just as more and more people in Hong Kong, as in other parts of the world, are beginning to engage in more and more sharing and discussing about politics and elections on popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, or popular local online services such as Hong Kong Golden, as well as messaging platforms such as Whatsapp, the EAC is telling us that such messages may be considered as advertising under the law, and unless these messages are previously approved by the candidates or their agents, those who post or share these messages may be liable to the offence of incurring costs to candidates without their consent, under election laws. 

In fact, earlier this month, the ICAC launched an investigation of a supporter of one of the candidates in the February Legco by-election for New Territories East, who reportedly shared support messages on Facebook to other users. 

According to the EAC, expressing support for a candidate to enhance his or her chances to be elected, or criticizing a candidate to lessen his or her chances to be elected, can both satisfy the definition for an election advertisement. It doesn’t matter whether you are sharing or writing a text message, creating your own graphics or videos to share, changing your profile pictures, or even adding a particular hashtag to express your view for or against a candidate, you may already be breaking the law, said the EAC. 

I’m sorry, but do any of the three members of the EAC use any of these social media platforms? Do they know what they’re talking about? Do they know that the Internet has become a critical or even deciding factor in many recent elections, from Taiwan to London, as well as the U.S. presidential election. Researchers are actively analysing between the social media engagement scores of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, measuring the effects of the likes they get, the mentions they receive, and the sharing and retweets they get with their posts. Yet in Hong Kong, our election watchdog is effectively telling us to shut up online. In terms of the threat against freedom of expression, I don’t know if threatening to sue us is worse or better than Iran shutting down social media altogether during elections, but, this still virtually guarantees Hong Kong will end up as a laughing stock of the free world. 

What’s even more laughable, but not funny, is that, our EAC also told us in their press briefing earlier in the month that while a simple “please support so-and-so” message could be deemed election advertising, if you have stated any of the candidate’s merit or demerit as reasons, that would possibly constitute a commentary, and you might be off the hook. So, don’t just say I support Mr X. But you can instead say, I support Mr X because he is handsome. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry over something so stupid.

What happens here is so common in Hong Kong these days, where we have outdated laws, rules and regulations, and instead of changing the rigid rules that can no longer apply to new conditions, our bureaucrats would still force new stuffs into their old cans. To them, the less they do, the fewer risks they would have to take. What they don’t know, they try not to learn.

Sadly, this is the government that is talking about encouraging innovation and developing technology day and night, but they don’t admit that in fact, from the Uber incident to election advertisements, our government stands right in the path of innovation, blocking progress. The government is our problem, not our solution. 

So, with two of my fellow legislators, Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung, we launched a Facebook campaign that we called “What do you know about my hashtag”, to highlight this gross stupidity looming over our upcoming elections. We have written to Facebook, as well as the Secretary for Justice and the Secretary for Innovation and Technology, to see if they can enlighten us about the costs of various social media actions, such as changing a profile picture, posting a status or a graphic, making a comment, tagging a user or a page, streaming a live video, or putting up a hashtag. So far, Facebook has officially replied to us that they do not consider that there would be any cost involved. 

Let’s see if our government secretaries or the EAC can shed light on any hidden costs that even Facebook doesn't know about. In the meantime, I hope each of you will submit your views and questions over this matter to the EAC during its public consultation, before June 9.  Tell them what they don't know about your hashtags. 

For Radio Television Hong Kong's Letter to Hong Kong, May 29, 2016

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

[EJinsight] Getting caught for election fraud is easier than you think

As demonstrated in the recent US presidential primaries, the Taiwan presidential election, the London mayoral election and the district council elections in Hong Kong last year, the internet and social media are quickly becoming an increasingly decisive battleground for candidates.

However, while it is very common for netizens to express their own support or rally support for particular candidates through social media in an election, few might be aware that by doing so they could fall into legal traps and even face criminal charges.

Last week, the Independent Commission Against Corruption invited a netizen to assist in its investigation of a suspected violation by her of the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance.

Media reports said that during the Legislative Council by-election in New Territories East in February, that person allegedly forwarded messages on Facebook urging her friends to vote for Edward Leung Tin-kei, the candidate representing Hong Kong Indigenous.

That person was not a member of Leung's campaign team, and she forwarded the messages entirely of her own accord without receiving any reward for doing so.

She did that because she agreed with Leung's election pledges.

It is something anyone with a smartphone might casually do.

However, under the Elections Ordinance, online messages and images showing support for a particular candidate, including those shared among friends or chat groups on social media, are considered election advertisements and will be counted in the election expenses of that candidate.

Since under Section 23 of the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance, only candidates themselves and the election agents they appoint can incur election expenses, anybody who incurs any election expense without the authorization of a candidate will be in violation of the law and could face criminal charges.

As we can see, the vulnerability of the average individual to a criminal charge of violating the Elections Ordinance is absolutely staggering.

To make things worse, thanks to the minimal public promotion and education about this potential legal risk by the government, the overwhelming majority of our citizens aren't aware of it at all.

Even though the odds of your getting caught by the ICAC for sending Facebook messages rooting for a candidate in an election might be smaller than those of your getting hit by a car, the risk is still there, and it is by no means a negligible issue.

I strongly urge the government to introduce a special clause to the existing Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance to exempt messages and images posted by the average internet user during elections, just as New Zealand and Canada have done.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 23 2016

Translation by Alan Lee

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

[EJinsight] Give our children an equal opportunity to learn

The popularization of information technology and the high internet penetration rate in Hong Kong have given many of us the impression that educational equality has already been achieved in this city, when in fact it is not the case.

Even though 96.2 percent of low-income families in Hong Kong have their own computers, and 95.2 percent of students from low-income families have access to the internet, these impressive numbers are unable to reflect the truth: a vast majority of these students are using obsolete computers and have to put up with low-speed internet connections when doing their homework.

The Internet Learning Support Program (ILSP) launched by the Education Bureau has been underway for several years, and so far it has spent HK$500 million (US$64.4 million) and helped 112,040 low-income families to buy their own computers.

The scheme might look pretty successful, but in fact it still has a lot of room for improvement, and the government could have done substantially more to help underprivileged students.

Recently, at a meeting between officials from the office of the government's chief information officer and parent representatives from low-income families, many of the parents complained about the inadequacy of the existing program.

For example, the ILSP doesn't apply to kindergarten students, and given its allowance of just HK$1,300 per year for each eligible family, its beneficiaries can only afford an 8 megabyte per second internet service plan, which is rather slow by today's standards.

Moreover, many parents also said the subsidies they are given under the ILSP are just enough for them to buy second-hand or obsolete computers.

To make things worse, the ILSP doesn't cover the cost of repairs of the computer systems.

As a result, many low-income families have no choice but to stick to their outdated or even malfunctioning computers because they just can't afford to fix them or buy a new one.

One of the parents at the meeting said she has three school-age children at home but only one obsolete computer, and every day her kids have to take turns to do their homework.

The last in the queue often has to wait until late at night for his turn, and that often leads to quarrels among them.

Another said her daughter has to go to a stationery store in the neighborhood to print out her homework every day because the family's printer has broken down and they just can't afford to get a new one.

I sincerely hope that the administration can take their complaints and views seriously and act accordingly to improve the ILSP.

I believe every kid in Hong Kong deserves to have an equal opportunity for education regardless of his or her family background, and it is our government's responsibility to make that happen.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 16 2016

Translation by Alan Lee

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

[EJinsight] Technology voucher scheme should be open and simple

Amid lukewarm global economic growth, small businesses in Hong Kong are facing competition and challenges of unprecedented proportions.

The degree to which they can adapt to the new business environment in the era of the information “Big Bang” and ride the tidal wave of rapid IT development will determine whether they survive or die.

Given the decisive role of information technology in the global economy, many owners of small businesses in Hong Kong are deeply concerned about whether government policies can facilitate the role of IT as the new growth engine of the city's economy.

The key to success is to stimulate domestic demand for tech services and products, so as to generate more business opportunities for the local tech industry.

Under the proposed HK$500 million (US$64.4 million) pilot scheme for technology vouchers, eligible small businesses will be given an allowance of up to HK$200,000 over a duration of three years to acquire tech solutions and services to improve their profit and productivity.

The scheme is aimed to create a win-win situation for small businesses and tech startups in Hong Kong by stimulating local demand through government subsidies to create more business opportunities for tech developers.

However, during a series of meetings between representatives of the local tech industry and government officials in March regarding the launch of the scheme, many members of the tech sector expressed concerns about bureaucracy and red tape that may put off potential applicants, as was the case in numerous government stimulus programs in the past.

Others suggested that service providers in the scheme should not be confined to tech companies recognized or certified by government-related bodies such as the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park and CyberPort .

Representatives of small businesses at the meeting would also like the government to allow more service providers to participate, so that they will have a wider range to choose from.

Some also said the government should expand the scope of the scheme to make more kinds of services eligible for subsidies.

I think it is important for the government to take their views into account and address their concerns promptly, so as to make sure that the scheme is viable and can fulfill its intended purposes.

As the administration is going to brief the Legislative Council on further details of the scheme on May 17, I am looking forward to some good news from the government as to how it will simplify application procedures for the scheme to make it more user-friendly, simple and efficient.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 9 2016

Translation by Alan Lee