Sunday, May 22, 2022

[天下] Can Hong Kong block Telegram? | 香港政府能封鎖Telegram嗎?

Can Hong Kong block Telegram?

In a committee meeting of the legislature of Hong Kong, the territory’s Privacy Commissioner made a comment on her dissatisfaction with “certain overseas platform” in its handling of requests to remove doxxing information. With these cases numbering “sometimes over 200 a week,” the commissioner said she would consider further actions to escalate. 

And then, a local media leaked the platform in question to be Telegram, a popular messaging application. Right away, the Hong Kong public were asking, will the authorities block and ban Telegram? A whole host of pro-government legislators jumped at the opportunity to call for a blockage. And international media such as Bloomberg reported the news to the world as another example of Hong Kong’s recent draconian measures against freedom of expression. 

To block or not to block? Blocking Telegram is easier said than done. Those in the tech sector will remind others of Russia’s attempt to do exactly that, and it failed. Can Hong Kong achieve what Russia couldn’t? In 2018, the Russian government demanded Telegram, which actually was founded originally as a Russian company, to provide its encryption key to officials, so that the government could try to monitor content on the platform. Telegram refused, and then the Russian government blocked the IP addresses used by Telegram. 

There was just a problem — Telegram is not a website, but an Internet based application service. When Russia blocked those IP addresses used by Telegram on a dynamic basis, those other services or websites sharing the same common cloud platforms used were also affected. We are talking about popular global cloud platforms such as AWS, Microsoft Azure and Cloudflare. Those “accidental victims” that were blocked even allegedly included some of Russia’s government’s own websites. 

Four years have passed, are there any new ways to block? Apparently not. The whole Internet today may actually be even more reliant on such cloud services. Indeed, in June, 2020, Russia actually “unblocked” Telegram. Most ironically, the Russian government was found to be using more and more of this messaging platform over the years, including official and legitimate services to citizens, as well as using it to spread disinformation. 

Some people may ask, well, then, why can China do it? And not only Telegram, but a wide range of other websites and services. If they can, why can’t Russia and Hong Kong? The simple answer is that the Great Firewall of China — its notorious censorship mechanism — is based on a series of infrastructure and policy elements that most notably depended on having government agencies and state-owned telecom enterprises keeping absolute control over its Internet gateways to outside of the country, beginning from decades ago when the Internet infrastructure was built for China. 

That was, and is, not the way in Russia or Hong Kong, and probably any other country in the world save a few like North Korea. It’s not as simple as passing a new law, or setting up a new piece of censorship software, to “become like China.” So, the other countries most likely will have to undertake a series of targeted means — technical, administrative and legal — to “handle” the content undesirable to their autocratic rulers. 

So, all we can say is that, if Hong Kong wants to find a way to block Telegram, it probably won’t be easy, but no one can stop them from trying. 

One may recall that back in 2019, during the season of anti-extradition bill protests, there were also news leaks from the Hong Kong government about how it was “seriously considering blocking Telegram.” Presumably because of the technical difficulties, that did not happen. However, late in that year, the government applied for, and was granted, a court injunction to prohibit anyone from “wilfully disseminating, circulating, publishing or re-publishing on any Internet-based platform or medium (including but not limited to LIHKG and Telegram) any materials or information for the purpose of promoting, encouraging or inciting the use or threat of violence, intended or likely to cause bodily injury or property damage unlawfully in Hong Kong.” Telegram, along with a local bulletin-board style platform LIHKG, were indeed singled out since two and a half years ago. 

Since then, numerous Telegram group administrators have been arrested, charged and sentenced for a variety of charges of crimes. So if the authorities are still feeling that is not enough, and a technical blockage of Telegram may be difficult, then what can they do? The first possibility is to find an “excuse” to apply to the court for the two main mobile operating system platforms of Apple and Google to remove the Telegram app from their online stores. That way mobile phone users registered in Hong Kong will not be able to directly download and install the app, but users registered from other locations, as well as local users who already had the app on their phones or PCs, will still be able to use it. 

But if the Hong Kong authorities do that, international reaction must be one of immediate and inevitable indignation, and almost guaranteed to draw the attention of western governments, with little practically meaningful effect to block. Is that worth it? In today’s Hong Kong, nobody can bet against the authorities’ irrationalities. 

Some may suggest, why can’t Hong Kong legislate to ban Telegram altogether, so if anyone is found to have it on their phones or PCs, they can be fined or prosecuted. Possibly, in today’s completely submissive and obedient Hong Kong legislature formed after a “perfected” electoral reform, passage of such a law may not be a difficult task at all. 

However, blocking certain applications, websites or even companies by naming them in the law is still somewhat unprecedented, and it may not be as easy as it sounds to define the scope of the blockage. I would rather point out that for authoritarian regimes, rather than banning a given list of services, they may prefer to set out a set of vague and broad criteria of what would be illegal, for highest flexibility and maximum reach, that is, similar to the injunction of 2019. 

In the past week, conflicting news emerged such that, on the one hand, some media outlets reported that the authorities would seek guidance from China in order to adopt “the most vehement ways” to block Telegram, while other sources revealed that the authorities privately acknowledged the technical difficulties and were only raising the rhetoric to pressure Telegram to improve its compliance. 

Well, no one can predict the future action of an irrational regime, but the fact remains that personal data protection and privacy protection by law in Hong Kong has been cornered into “anti-doxxing” alone, a rather disproportionate way of handling a matter of huge importance to citizens’ protection as well as a territory’s economic development. 

Certainly doxxing is not to be condoned, but any attempt, legal or otherwise, to mitigate this issue may be done in balance of other important factors including freedoms of information and the media. Of course, in reality, such expectations are increasingly impractical and untimely for today’s Hong Kong.

What I found most “interesting” about the two sides of this discussion — the pro-Beijing faction calling for strict blockage of such foreign platforms, or the citizens concerned about losing yet another service for their day-to-day use — few seem to remember that even if Telegram is “successfully” blocked in Hong Kong, doxxing of these same targets will continue to carry on outside of Hong Kong. The “extraterritorial jurisdiction” put into Hong Kong’s privacy laws, including the doxxing related amendments passed in Hong Kong last September, are still very hard to enforce. Simply pushing doxxing out of sight in Hong Kong hardly solved the problem.

So the current controversy is also about the impracticality of extraterritorial jurisdiction of the law. The government and the legislature like to put this in all the digital-related laws, almost as a manifest of “digital sovereignty,” even though it is harder and harder to receive recognition for such jurisdiction right from regimes overseas, as Hong Kong becomes more and more isolated diplomatically and internationally. Will Hong Kong’s next step be to legislate to be able to forcibly hold foreign companies accountable for everything that happens outside of Hong Kong, resulting in a de facto eviction of more global companies from Hong Kong?

So, if we are to ask the question, what a Telegram block will mean for Hong Kong’s free flow of information and its role as a regional information center and commercial hub? I can only say that these past descriptions of Hong Kong’s role as a center and hub have been slipping farther and farther away in these two years. Hong Kong’s sharp decline indeed is a huge contrast to Taiwan’s digital economy development. 

May Hong Kong also serve as a reminder for vigilance and a caution to how delicate and easy that freedoms can be stripped from a previously vibrant society.

Published: CommonWealth Insight on May 25 2022










不過,沒有人能說他們不會嘗試。回想2019年也曾有消息傳出,香港政府曾經認真考慮禁止Telegram和連登討論區,不過當時可能因為技術限制,最後沒有發生。反而在當年10月底,當局採取了以律政司向法庭申請禁制令的方法,禁止任何人「故意在任何基於互聯網的平台或媒介上傳布、傳播、發布或重新發布任何目的在於促進、鼓勵或煽動使用或威脅使用暴力的材料或信息」,禁制令中更指明「包括但不限於LIHKG 連登和Telegram」。










Published: 獨立評論 @天下 on May 21 2022

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

[FNF | 天下] Taiwan can be East Asia’s New Internet and Data Hub | 亞洲最新的網際網路及數據樞紐?台灣能!

Taiwan can be East Asia’s New Internet and Data Hub

In the second half of April, Taiwan scored two major wins in consolidating its regional and global positions in digital future and data trade within a week’s time, with relatively little fanfare or local attention. Is Taiwan on the verge of a golden opportunity to transform its economy, yet without its broader business, industrial and political communities knowing its own full potential?

On April 28, 2022, the United States and “sixty partners around the world” together launched the Declaration for the Future of the Internet. Taiwan was among these partners, which included the European Commission and governments from all over the world, and the U.S. itself. As the signatories of the declaration were in effect all governments, the diplomatic choice to use the word “partners” instead of “countries” was clearly made for including Taiwan.

As a matter of background information, the concept for an Alliance for the Future of the Internet was floated by the U.S. White House shortly before the end of 2021, and was intended to be announced at the Summit for Democracy in early December. However, the plan faced pushback from the digital rights as well as technology business communities and was criticised for being merely an extension of the Trump administration’s “Clean Network” initiative, for alliance member countries to pledge to “use only trustworthy providers” in core Internet infrastructure, which makes the alliance a “no-China” club but lacks focus for the global Internet to adhere to democratic, human rights and accessibility values. Civil societies and Internet companies also felt left out of the process and without a seat at the table.

Taiwan has a place in the future of the Internet

As a result, days before the Summit for Democracy was to commence, the announcement of the alliance was delayed, until now. The April 28 announcement of the declaration takes on somewhat of a looser form compared to an alliance of national and territorial governments. The declaration itself also adjusted its focus to a more principles-driven vision for the Internet based on human rights and fundamental freedoms including expression and pluralism, increased access and affordability, safety and privacy, fair competition, and a trusted and secure infrastructure. Also, likely as a response to the more recent “splinternet” controversy that arose out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the declaration emphasised a global Internet and the need to refrain from shutdowns, blocking lawful content and services, and free data flows.

But the declaration is still significant in many ways, and may represent the prelude to a series of international lobbying in preparation for the important election of the next secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the technical body under the United Nations (U.N.) in charge of the world’s telecom standards and regulations, where a Russian candidate and and a U.S. candidate will face off later this year. With China and Russia “fully cooperating” to try not only to dominate the ITU but also to wrestle away global Internet governance from the multistakeholder ICANN to the ITU — and hence the hands of national governments — the signatories may represent one of the most visible actions to date to counter the efforts of China and Russia.

Even though Taiwan is not a member of the U.N. nor the ITU, the inclusion of Taiwan among the democratic allies and their effort to “reclaim the promise of the Internet,” as described in the declaration, is symbolic and significant. It is also important to note that, despite the U.S.’s emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region in recent years, the declaration was endorsed by relatively few Asia Pacific partners, with only Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan, and Pacific islands such as Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau, with major Asian countries and technology leaders such as India, South Korea and Singapore notably missing. That makes Taiwan stand out even more.

However, the news of Taiwan’s inclusion in the U.S.-led declaration apparently only received relatively limited press coverage in Taiwan, with the attention placed on digital minister Audrey Tang representing the government in the online signing ceremony with other global partners, repeating the rather plainly worded Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release and with little commentary or analysis on any of its importance.

A seat at the table in setting global data rules

Similarly, a week before the announcement of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, Taiwan became a member of the Global Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) Forum, on April 21, 2022, along with Canada, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and the U.S., this time under the name of “Chinese Taipei.” In the statement from U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the Forum “intends to establish the Global Cross Border Privacy Rules and Privacy Recognition Processors (PRP) Systems, first-of-their-kind data privacy certifications that help companies demonstrate compliance with internationally recognised data privacy standards.” The “APEC CBPR” System will facilitate and establishment the framework for and promote mutual recognition and trusted international data flows.

Again, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a press release, stating that its inclusion on the Forum will have a positive impact on “international cooperation on privacy protection and cross-border digital trade development.” Indeed, the potentials for Taiwan can go way beyond this general description.

In recent years, the U.S. and the E.U. have been embroiled in a longstanding dispute about data transfers, not the least because the E.U. has led by setting up very comprehensive privacy and data protection laws, while the U.S. has not. Recently in March 2022, however, the U.S. and E.U. finally entered into a data transfer agreement. Meanwhile, earlier in June, 2021, China’s Data Security Law also came into effect, enabling a comprehensive regulatory regime for its data and security governance, including data sovereignty and requirements for local storage, with a focus on national security. Data may be the new oil, but without the pipelines and the agreements on how to transfer and exchange these data, the full economic potentials will not be realised.

In Asia, there is no comprehensive region-wise data and privacy framework, like the E.U.’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the regulatory regimes in countries and territories can vary greatly, if they exist. The U.S.’s CBPR initiative is obviously an attempt to counter China’s influence and to take leadership to emphasise on data transfers and related business opportunities, while the Chinese regulations tends to focus more on forcing companies to keep data within China. As such, Taiwan can play a critical role.

Taiwan can fill the void left by Hong Kong

In recent years, Taiwan has made headways in its Internet infrastructure and established a respectable regional presence. Major U.S. technology giants such as Google and Meta have chosen Taiwan to host their regional datacenters, along with Singapore, but instead of Hong Kong. When Google and Meta jointly invested to build what would have been the first direct trans-Pacific undersea cable — the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) — between California and Hong Kong, and the U.S. government eventually refused to allow the PCLN to reach Hong Kong, Google and Meta had to revise their proposal to have the PCLN terminate in Taiwan instead in order to receive the license approval from the U.S. In the PLCN “national security agreement” between Google and Meta with the U.S. government, the investors agreed to “pursue diversification of interconnection points in Asia, including but not limited to Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.” That could very well mean connecting to these countries from Taiwan.

In other words, Taiwan is poised to take over at least part of the role of the region’s telecommunications and Internet hub vacated by Hong Kong, as the latter’s position has been compromised since the implementation of the National Security Law from Beijing in 2020, and the subsequent political crackdowns, followed by various U.S. sanctions. While Taiwan will not be able to displace Hong Kong interconnection role into the mainland and the Greater Bay Area, it has a good chance of taking over some of the regional and international traffic and data flows in East and Southeast Asia, especially new growth in demands, because the non-China international capacity of Hong Kong will grow much more slowly than before, if at all, in the foreseeable future.

This may be a perfect opportunity for Taiwan to set its goal to become the regional Internet, data and technology service hub for East Asia, like Singapore for Southeast Asia. For years, Taiwan has been trying to diversify its industrial base and its reliance on the semiconductor, electronics and manufacturing sectors. Even though Taiwan’s prospects for its semiconductor industry still look great, it is always smarter to spread the eggs in more baskets during good times.

Next Steps for Taiwan - What should Taiwan do ?

I humbly suggest the following for Taiwan to upgrade its grand vision, soft infrastructure and skills base:

1. Establish Taiwan’s digital economy strategy, covering all aspects of government and industry digital transformation, attracting foreign investment and supporting research and development, as well as education and manpower development, and let the world know Taiwan is more than about semiconductor and electronics.

2. Update its legal and regulatory regimes on data and privacy protection as well as  telecommunications with a view to liberalise and attract international investment and more data and services exchange with other Asia Pacific economies, and also to catch up  with data and privacy regulations in Europe and other leading countries.

3. Double down on the effort to develop the telecommunications and Internet sector, leveraging on inroads already made in datacenters and infrastructure, attract more investment and expand regional connectivity and capacity with its East Asian neighbours such as Japan and South Korea, as well as the U.S.

4. Learn from the Singapore playbook and negotiate bilateral agreements on digital trade and data transfers with other countries, similar to Singapore’s proposed pact with the U.K. Again, as it is unlikely for Hong Kong to enter into data trade agreements with leading western economies in the near future, Taiwan is well placed to take over.

There is no need to abandon what Taiwan has been doing well, but this is the best chance for it to expand and diversify into new areas of economic growth, that would not only greatly benefit Taiwan but also offer the opportunities for its allies to help, support and bolster its regional strategic and economic importance. That can truly be a win-win situation.

Published: Friedrich Naumann Foundation, May 3 2022



Also published on CommonWealth Magazine, May 5 2022 (English)




早於半年多前,當美國總統拜登政府還在籌備12月的線上民主峰會時,已計劃在峰會上宣布成立「未來網際網路聯盟」。然而消息一出,卻遭受各方質疑和批評。無論是數位人權組織或科技企業,都察覺到這個聯盟似乎只局限於川普總統時期的「乾淨網路計畫」(Clean Network),要求盟友保證在其網路基礎建設內只會使用可信的技術供應商。換句話說,除了籠統地承諾不使用來自中國的產品,這個聯盟並未聚焦網際網路發展的重要價值觀,包括民主、人權等;加上公民社會團體和網路企業都未能直接參與,私底下都表示不滿。







在宣言發布前七天,台灣以創始會員身分加入由美國領導、美國商務部長Gina Raimondo宣布成立的「全球跨境隱私規則論壇」(Global Cross-Border Privacy Rules Forum,GCPR),成員包括加拿大、日本、菲律賓、新加坡、南韓、美國及台灣;而論壇的目的包括建立首個數據私隱認可機制,讓企業能藉以顯示自己已遵從國際數據私隱要求,便利各地互認機制,容許國際數據交換及轉移。














Published: 獨立評論 @天下 on May 9 2022