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 

https://english.cw.com.tw/article/article.action?id=3233&from=search


香港政府能封鎖Telegram嗎?

最近聽說,香港私隱專員在一個立法會委員會上說,有些海外平台對香港「起底」的指令不夠合作,有時一個星期多達200多宗個案,會考慮如何處理。接著又有消息傳出,這個平台就是Telegram。一眾立法會議員自然爭相出來要求禁用。

然而,禁用Telegram,說易行難。科技界最直接的回應是:俄羅斯都不能,香港能嗎?

俄羅斯都不能禁用Telegram,香港能嗎?

2018年,俄羅斯政府要求Telegram這個由俄羅斯人創辦的社群媒體提供加密鑰匙,讓政府能審查平台上的內容。Telegram拒絕了,於是政府企圖把它的IP地址屏蔽,然而,Telegram是個應用程式,不是單一網站,俄羅斯政府要求網路供應商禁止所有相關IP地址,副作用就是令其他同時使用同一雲端服務的網站全都一起被屏蔽,不能登入。被波及的包括AWS、微軟,據說甚至還有俄羅斯政府自己的一些網站。

4年過去,有新的方法「解決」這個問題嗎?似乎沒有。整個網路世界比以前更依賴雲端服務,要避免屏蔽一個app帶來的副作用,可能只有更難。俄羅斯在2020年6月對Telegram「解禁」,而諷刺的是,在解禁前後,俄羅斯甚至加強利用Telegram,包括在上面散播假新聞。

有人會說,那麼,為什麼中國能禁?不只Telegram,還能禁止千千萬萬的不同網站和服務?簡單回答,中國的「防火長城」是以政府機關和國營企業完全控制網路對外的出入口,數十年來都禁止大型平台在國內運作,香港、俄羅斯的情況不是如此,也不是一朝一夕就可以變成中國的「國家全面控制」狀況。所以,他們只能用其他方法,針對性地禁止一些內容或服務,而這些做法在科技上限制較大,多數只能以行政手法對「問題」逐一處理。

所以,香港若想以技術方法全面禁用Telegram,大概不能輕易做到。

香港要起底、禁用Telegram又有困難:政府會怎麼做?

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」。

兩年多來,不少曾經在Telegram經營群組的管理員,都因為各種罪名被控告,甚至定罪入獄。那麼,如果當局覺得起底還做得不夠,完全在境內禁用Telegram又有困難,還有什麼其他可能手段?

第一個可能性,就是找出法律上的方法,甚至向法庭申請,要求蘋果和Google兩大應用平台移除Telegram,讓在香港註冊的手機用戶不能下載。當然,已經下載應用的用戶、或者是註冊於其他地區的香港用戶還是可以繼續使用,或者透過電腦版本使用。而香港政府如果真的向蘋果和Google施壓,將在國際上引起極大迴響,也幾乎一定會引起美國政府的反應。這作用其實不大,不過,即使只是「為做而做」,今天也沒人敢能說香港政府不會這樣。

另一種可能是,香港政府可以直接立法禁用Telegram,只要發現有人手機或電腦上有此應用,都可以罰款、檢控。在今天香港「完善」的行政立法合作下,很多人會覺得如今什麼法都能立吧?不過,在法例上直接點名禁止一個應用程式、網站或公司,不容易找到先例,而且如何定義禁止的範圍,未必那麼容易。我認為對於專制政權而言,如果能禁,何必只禁一個或幾個應用程式?倒不如定出一些模糊的原則,把這些立法規範化。

我可以指出這些原則上的考慮,但不能也不會估計香港政府會怎做,因為這些年來,政府有過太多非理性的決定了。也有人問,現時私隱條例中反起底條文的懲罰,是否合符比例?我也很難回答。因為香港的私隱條例和執行部門的工作焦點,已經變成了「反起底專員公署」,本身就是不合符比例的法例。我當然不認同起底的行為,但對任何罪行的處理,都需要平衡對社會各方面的利益和需要,起底一事對資訊和傳媒自由的影響,必須充分考慮,不能一面倒、一刀切。不過,近年香港的趨勢,這些想法恐怕都不合時宜了。

在近日的討論中,我感到最有趣的是,無論是想找方法禁Telegram的建制派,或是擔心不能再使用Telegram的市民,都只在思考禁或不禁這件事,大家像是忘記了,就算香港禁了Telegram,其他的平台仍然存在;起底的行為,恐怕還是會在香港以外繼續;而香港法例中的所謂「境外執法權」,執行起來仍是極為困難,名存實無。難道把這些起底問題和內容推到境外,就當是「做了」?

這次關於Telegram的爭議,多少是因為去年修改後的私隱條例的反起底條文的境外執法權,說來容易,但實施執行的能力有限,這是強行立了不可能有效執行的法例的問題。如不承認這一點,也許下一章的劇本,就是繼續強行在香港追究所有境外平台的海外責任,有可能變相把他們迫離香港市場。

所以,如果有人要問,若是禁了Telegram,將會如何影響香港的資訊流通自由和香港作為區域資訊中心和商業中心的地位?我只可反問,香港還有、還是這些東西嗎?

香港人透過香港整體的傳媒和網絡自由所能享有的言論和表達自由,在過去兩年急速下降,已經是不爭的事實,與台灣相比,更能突顯出兩地對資訊自由和網絡發展所走的相反方向。台灣除了應利用機會發展由本土走出國際的數位經濟商機,亦須把香港引為戒鑒,失去資訊和網絡自由的代價非常高,不能讓社會走上這條路。

(作者曾任香港立法會資訊科技界議員,現任美國史丹福大學全球數位政策中心訪問學者。)

Published: 獨立評論 @天下 on May 21 2022

https://opinion.cw.com.tw/blog/profile/52/article/12301

2 Comments:

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