Wednesday, April 13, 2022

[OPTF] Teardown of Hong Kong’s internet freedom

Dialogues on digital rights: Teardown of Hong Kong’s internet freedom

April 12, 2022 / Digital rights / By Charles Mok

This article is a part of a series of essays commissioned by the OPTF, written by people from all around the world. Charles Mok is an internet entrepreneur and IT advocate. He was formerly a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and founded the Hong Kong chapter of the Internet Society. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University.

For decades, Hong Kong has maintained one of Asia’s freest Internet environments, despite being a part of China. As a special administrative region, reverted to Chinese sovereignty since July 1, 1997, Article 30 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law(1) guarantees the freedom and privacy of communication of residents. 

But such freedom has not come without challenges. Over the years, Hong Kong’s government has made some attempts to curtail such freedom. In 2012, it launched a consultation of the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance (COIAO) (2), the territory’s pornography regulation, in which the authority initially proposed the implementation of a mandatory “operator-level content filtering,” that was fortunately abandoned after opposition from the public and the Internet community(3). 

Then, in 2016, after years of consultation and legislative attempts by the government to update its digital copyright protection regime, an amendment bill was shelved following weeks of filibustering by opposition lawmakers, reflecting widespread public mistrusts of the government’s intention, as it tried to criminalise online derivative works of copyrighted materials, despite the promise of exemptions for parody(4). 

Defending Internet freedom, before National Security Law

To be fair, these legislative attempts were not dissimilar to actions taken by many western governments to regulate the Internet for reasons of public security, illegal content or intellectual property protection. Yet, the fact that they failed stood as a testament of Hong Kong’s former vibrancy and pluralism of its civil society and legislature, even if the political system was far from truly democratic.

Nevertheless, a question always stands on many people’s mind — will China’s Great Firewall be extended to Hong Kong? Fortunately, Hong Kong’s telecommunications environment has been completely liberalised for more than two decades, allowing investment and licenses for international operators, compared to China’s external Internet gateways, which are still strictly controlled by state-owned enterprises. Furthermore, Hong Kong being a hub of telecommunications, underseas fibre optics and datacenter facilities, as well as an international financial centre, has made it more difficult for China to impose the same mainland-style restrictions, at least until more recently. 

With few legal or operational mandates to censor the Internet, for more than twenty years Hong Kong’s Internet was indeed among the freest in Asia. But such advantages were hardly guaranteed without a democratic system of government. Over the years, as the political situation in Hong Kong turned more oppressive, local netizens were becoming more worried of looming crackdowns on the online freedom of expression they enjoyed. 

For example, in 2014, during the Umbrella Movement, when a large part of the Central business district was occupied by protestors for months, there were rumours abound that the government would shut down the area’s cellular wireless coverage. Although such a shutdown did not materialise, countless citizens downloaded an app called FireChat, which would enable them to communicate with one another over Bluetooth, even if all mobile or Wi-Fi networks were disabled in an affected area(5). As there was no shutdown after all, most people never got to use the app. 

Fast forward to the territory-wide protests in 2019, ignited by the unpopular “extradition bill” proposed by the government. Protesters relied heavily on the use of Internet tools and messaging platforms, most notably Facebook and Telegram, to share information, as well as to organise and mobilise. More controversially, some protestors posted personal information of police officers and government officials on the Internet, followed by government supporters retaliating by doing the same, only on a much bigger scale, resulting in a proliferation of doxxing by both camps. The government resorted to accusing protesters of causing harms to the police, government officials and their families, and sharing “fake news.” 

On October 31, 2019, the government applied for and was granted an injunction from the High Court, prohibiting anyone from communicating through “any Internet-based platform” any materials that “promotes, encourages or incites the use or threat of violence, intended or likely to cause” bodily injury or property damage. Besides the injunction being too broad and too vague, the use of such legal manoeuvre to obtain a court injunction effectively enabled the government and law enforcement to easily and conveniently bypass the legislature to impose online censorship unseen in Hong Kong before. 

The Internet Society Hong Kong(6), concerned(7) about establishing the precedence for arbitrary content deletion and prosecution, the chilling effect on netizens, and the detrimental impact on the territory’s Internet freedom, applied to the court for discharge or restrict the injunction(8). Unfortunately, on November 15, the High Court ruled to continue the injunction, with minor amendments to its terms to emphasise the wilfulness of the act(9). The injunction remains active, as part of the growing arsenal of censorship tools that law enforcement can use in Hong Kong. 

NSL: the next chapter, but not the last

Next came, of course, the National Security Law (NSL). With the implementation rules of the NSL (10) taking effect on July 7, 2020, the NSL, in effect from July 1 -- not passed in Hong Kong but imposed from the central government in Beijing -- allowed simply an authorised “designated police officer” to order the takedown of messages or content on any electronic platform that was deemed “likely to constitute an offence endangering national security or is likely to cause the occurrence of an offence endangering national security,” by the relevant platform, hosting or network service providers. Failing to comply, the service provider could face the seizure of their electronic device, plus fines and prison terms of up to six months. Moreover, Hong Kong’s chief executive could authorise the police to intercept communications and conduct surveillance to “prevent and detect offences endangering national security.”

The gross lack of transparency and oversight of the NSL, and the vague and arbitrary scope for what it is meant by “likely to constitute an offence” are obviously problematic, to say the least. And such concerns have since been manifested in the blocking of politically sensitive websites such as HKChronicles (a wiki-like website with details of police officers and pro-Beijing individuals), June 4th Online Museum, a number of Taiwanese websites, and most recently, Hong Kong Watch (a human rights group based in the U.K.)(11). As a matter of routine, the police would not even comment or acknowledge whether the blocking of such websites was made based on the application of the NSL. 

In addition, the government also amended the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance in September, 2021, to empower the regulator to investigate and prosecute acts of doxxing, but without strengthening the overall protection for data and privacy of all citizens, leading to concerns of selective enforcement and political weaponisation of privacy protection(12). Furthermore, there were also a number of cases where administrators of various Telegram channels or groups were belatedly arrested, charged and sentenced to hefty jail time for “inciting riots” during the 2019 protests(13). All these have added to the silencing of critics in Hong Kong, as a mood of self-censorship has settled in. 

The future is grim

So, what next? With the secretive national security police apparatus estimated to number  4,000 local officers, not even including any agents or officers from the mainland, clearly they must find ways to keep themselves busy. Expect more expansive application of the NSL, offline and online, local and abroad — as the law asserts jurisdiction over anyone, anyhow, anywhere, even if such persons have never been to Hong Kong. For instance, it is now legally possible for the Hong Kong authority to demand social media companies to remove content it deemed undesirable even if such companies’ servers or offices are not even located in Hong Kong(14). 

Moreover, the interpretation for what constitutes national security will also look to be wildly expanded as the regime sees fit. Already, Stand News, a leading pro-democracy online news outlet, was closed down, after its editors were arrested for “inciting hatred toward the Hong Kong government.” Recently, two storeowners were also arrested by national security police on charges of sedition because of their anti-vaccination posts on social media(15). 

But Beijing and Hong Kong authorities will not stop with just the NSL. The government and local pro-Beijing politicians who now completely dominate the rubber-stamp legislature are calling for the establishment of a “fake news law,”(16) which is likely to happen in 2022, even though the territory’s corps of pro-democracy media have all but been totally eliminated. In addition to further stifling any shred of independent journalism and press freedom remaining in Hong Kong, such law may finally completely silence the users on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as messaging platforms, like WhatsApp and Telegram, while putting those platform companies in the untenable position of having to carry out government censorship. 

To conclude, in the immediate to intermediate term, short of implementing a full-scale Great Firewall of Hong Kong, China seems to be borrowing a page from the Russian playbook. After all, Russia, similar to Hong Kong, has previously allowed the presence of foreign platforms, and not all its Internet traffic were filtered or censored. But Russia recently enacted a law to ban “false information,” such as calling its Ukraine invasion a “war,” with a punishment of up to 15 years in prison. This is similar to Beijing’s strategy in Hong Kong. In the long run, sadly, Hong Kong is undoubtedly treading toward the model of outright China-styled censorship and surveillance. 


1. : “The freedom and privacy of communication of Hong Kong residents shall be protected by law. No department or individual may, on any grounds, infringe upon the freedom and privacy of communication of residents except that the relevant authorities may inspect communication in accordance with legal procedures to meet the needs of public security or of investigation into criminal offences.”

2. Consultation document: 

3. Internet Society Hong Kong responses to the second round consultation of the COIAO:

4. Hong Kong government’s shelving of controversial copyright bill: what went wrong?

5. FireChat – the messaging app that’s powering the Hong Kong protests

6. The author was the founding chair of Internet Society Hong Kong, in 2006.

7. Internet Society Deeply Concerned about Interim Injunction Ordered by Hong Kong High Court

8. Internet Society Hong Kong’s Legal Challenge Against Govt’s Injunction of Blocking Free Speech Online

9. Interim Injunction Order of the High Court (HCA 2007/2019) – Promotion, Encouragement and Incitement of the Use or Threat of Violence via Internet-based Platform or Medium

10. Implementation Rules for Article 43 of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region gazetted

11. Internet censorship in Hong Kong

12. “The Downfall of Hong Kong’s Privacy Law” by the author

13. Hefty jail term for Hong Kong Telegram channel admin convicted of inciting riot, arson and violence during 2019 protestsAlleged Telegram channel administrator charged with inciting arson against police facilities, denied bail 

Student arrested for being admin of social media group supporting Hong Kong protests

14. Hong Kong’s national security law: 10 things you need to know

15. Covid-19: Hong Kong national security police arrest 2 for sedition over anti-vaxx posts

16. Hong Kong’s call for ‘fake news’ law raises media crackdown fears 

【假新聞法】研究上半年完成或將立法 記協質疑定義模糊難執法兼限制資訊流通

Published by Oxen Privacy Tech Foundation, April 12, 2022

Saturday, April 09, 2022

[Diplomat] China’s Choice for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Reveals Its Own Insecurity

China’s Choice for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Reveals Its Own Insecurity

John Lee’s background is heavy on security, showing Beijing values that over Hong Kong’s economic prosperity.

John Lee, chief secretary of Hong Kong and its second-highest ranking official, resigned on April 6 to prepare to stand for the chief executive election in the territory. Lee, a career police officer and former deputy police commissioner, only began his civilian government service in 2012, when he was appointed the undersecretary for security. He became the secretary for security in 2017, in the cabinet of the current Chief Executive Carrie Lam. When he was promoted to the chief secretary role last year, it was the highest government position held by a former police officer in Hong Kong. Should he become Hong Kong’s next chief executive, it will be yet another first.

In all likelihood, Lee will be the next chief executive. After all, under the new and “improved” electoral system of Hong Kong enacted in May 2021, the 1,500-member Election Committee is now completely controlled by “patriots” handpicked by Beijing. Unlike previous chief executive elections, when token competition was permitted by Beijing to give the appearance of an open election process, reports from Hong Kong have suggested that Beijing would back only a single candidate this time: Lee.

The central government’s selection of Lee clearly indicates that it puts a higher priority on security issues over Hong Kong citizens’ livelihood matters, as well as the city’s economy and its status as a global financial center. The message is clear – even though Carrie Lam demonstrated staunch loyalty by following Beijing’s orders in her tumultuous five-year term, that was still not enough. Of course, her chaotic handling of the Omicron outbreak in Hong Kong in recent months has completely ruled her out of the race.

Earlier, Paul Chan, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, was also seen as a potential candidate for chief executive. Chan is perceived to be equally loyal to Beijing, but with a more professional and somewhat more moderate image compared to Lee. Even former Chief Executive Chun-ying Leung, perennially rumored to be eyeing a return to the position as the special administration region’s leader, has more experience in domestic policies and has commented frequently on the economic integration of Hong Kong with the Greater Bay Area, in addition to his hardline rhetoric.

The tacit rejection of these contenders means that either Beijing does not care about Lee’s policy deficiency, or it indeed believes that his being a “blank piece of paper” will mean more malleability, and, hence, is preferred. Neither thought is a comfort for Hong Kong’s citizens or its business community.

With the National Security Law firmly in place after almost two years, it is hard to fathom the possibility of any domestic political unrest or protest being reignited. While Beijing would be concerned about further Western pressure and sanctions involving Hong Kong, any loyal chief executive can equally talk tough in retaliation, and there is precious little more that he or she can do. It would be up to Beijing to handle foreign policy anyway. Installing a figure like Lee at Hong Kong’s top leader would only exacerbate the already tense relations with the West.

On the other hand, in a recent meeting with the National People’s Congress delegates from Hong Kong, Han Zheng, senior vice premier of the State Council and a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, as well as the leader of the Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, emphasized Hong Kong’s role as a financial center and its development as an innovation and technology center. Han also expressed his concerns about housing issues. It is hard to reconcile such practical priorities for Hong Kong with Lee’s appointment, however, as he simply does not have any policy exposure in any of these areas.

Indeed, the selection of Hong Kong’s chief executive may just be the latest in a series of policy decisions by Beijing leading to self-inflicted hardship. Beijing appears driven by paranoia over security and absolute state control, with a high dose of insecurity, leading it to ignore all the side effects of its extreme and draconian measures. Of course, this insecurity is hidden under an outward appearance of confidence, much like the often-quoted Mao Zedong thought that “man can conquer nature.”

Outside of Hong Kong policy, China has shown a similarly stubborn adherence to its zero COVID strategy, including the lockdown of Shanghai, and to the crackdown on its technology, education and property sectors, despite an ensuing economic slowdown and growing unemployment. China may have convinced itself that such policies can support its “dual circulation” goal.

However, when the goal becomes the means, China may have backed itself into a corner, forcing the rest of the world to expedite decoupling from China. That precisely defeats the purpose of one half of the dual circulation strategy: external circulation, or economic interactions with the world. Moreover, China’s standing with Russia in the invasion of Ukraine has expedited an outflow of funds in an “unprecedented scale,” further challenging the notion of the mutual dependency between China and the rest of the world.

If the world’s dependence on China decreases, so would China’s leverage on the rest of the world. China’s obsession with its regime security may have been caused by its sense of insecurity. Its regime may end up becoming less secure, and our world more unstable.

Published: The Diplomat, Apr 8 2022