Friday, October 21, 2022

[OPTF] The Next Chapter for Hong Kong’s digital repression: Total judicial cooperation

The Next Chapter for Hong Kong’s digital repression: Total judicial cooperation

In a bizarre case of government censorship aided by the court in Hong Kong, five speech therapists were sentenced to 19 months in jail for “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.” The evidence? A set of illustrated print children’s storybooks depicting a village of sheep resisting wolves invading their village. The judge found that the books were part of “a brainwashing exercise with a view to guiding the very young children to accept their views and values,” and the authors intended to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection” against the local and central government.

The case did not involve online content, but it clearly showed that the red line for the freedom of expression in Hong Kong has been lowered to an extremely perilous level, with full corroboration of the court in censoring expression, and indeed, thought, in Hong Kong. Regardless of what they say and how it is said, no expression is truly safe for residents of Hong Kong. The court seems to have determined to guarantee that government prosecution will score a perfect record of convictions. Yet, some activists appear to be determined to keep on going, as one of the defendants in the children’s storybook case said in court, that her “only regret was that she had not published more picture books before her arrest.”

Such will and resolve from civil defenders may be one reason why the Hong Kong government is still planning for a further series of legislative proposals, to be nominally consulted and then most likely speedily passed in what is currently a rubber-stamp legislature, designed to rein in online expression in Hong Kong.

Case in point is the recent consultation for a new cyber-crime law, which has sparked much concern from both the Internet sector and users. For instance, under the category of illegal access to program or data, Hong Kong’s law reform commission recommended that “mere unauthorized access should be criminalized as a summary offense, which does not require malice to be an element of the offense, subject to the statutory defense of reasonable excuse.” The commission also recommended raising sentencing for many offenses from two years to fourteen years. The maximum sentence for the aggravated offense for illegal interference with computer data and a computer system may even be life imprisonment. In short, these proposed changes are about easier prosecution and harsher punishment. 

And a series of other new laws are slated to be proposed, too: a new cybersecurity law “to protect critical infrastructure,” a new anti-misinformation law, and another new law to regulate online and offline crowdfunding activities, an amendment for the local rules for the national security law imposed by the central government, and the preparatory work for yet another new local version of national security law. There are several reasons for the rush for new laws. Such laws targeting cybersecurity, misinformation and also cyber and data sovereignty have already been established in many other parts of the world. In Asia alone, similar laws have appeared in Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, India and, of course, China itself, are becoming the norm, putting pressure on freedom of expression for both the users as well as the social media or messaging platforms. Even western democracies are doing the same, and it has become very easy for autocratic regimes to justify their digital repression by claiming to be, first, targeting cyber-crimes and protecting cybersecurity, and, second, that they are only following the examples of western democracies.

The laws can be similar, but it is the level of democratic oversight, judicial independence and the rule of law that will make the difference. In the self-proclaimed “perfected” political system in Hong Kong, with “full cooperation” of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, these laws will be passed quickly by the legislature, and once enacted, the court will also likely cooperate with the administration in way of their judgment. 

Under such an atmosphere, those who still choose not to self-censor will face increasingly perilous situations. Another recent case saw the administrators of the Facebook group “Civil Servants Secrets” – who were themselves government workers –  arrested by national security police on possible charges relating to “acts with seditious intention.” What made some of these postings in the group — mostly gossip or grievances about the government as a workplace — seditious? Some messages were said to “promote feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong.”

One of the hallmarks of political arrests in Hong Kong is that these cases almost invariably involve the police confiscating the suspects’ mobile phones and personal computers, sometimes both personal and work, to “search for evidence.” In the “Civil Servants Secrets” case, national security police actually raided the government office of the suspect, taking away all their personal and work phones and computers. While the public often asks whether the social media platform, such as Facebook in this case, may have provided information and data to the police, the reality is that the police may not bother with getting such data from social media platforms. Everything is already sitting on the phones and computers of those arrested for the police to harvest.  In this regard, the users’ devices remain the weakest link when it comes to law enforcement abuse. Meanwhile, a number of other Facebook “secrets” pages were “voluntarily” removed to avoid getting their administrators into trouble.

Are these laws, arrests, charges and court convictions silencing activists, civil defenders and journalists? Yes, particularly when the courts are no longer seen to be independent and respect the rule of law. Unfortunately, what happens in Hong Kong is not unique, as digital authoritarian trends are rapidly expanding in Asia and many other parts of the world. What stands out for Hong Kong is only how far it has fallen in such a short period of time, from a relatively free society with a vibrant press and civil society, to a highly repressive regime. May this be a reminder for the rest of the world of the fragility of online freedom of expression, how easily it can be lost. 

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. 

Published: OPTF, October 20, 2022

Thursday, October 13, 2022

[天下] 馬斯克「台灣特區」言論,台灣人應當看見背後的警訊


特斯拉執行長馬斯克(Elon Musk)最近於一場訪問中,針對台海衝突建議設立一個「台灣特區」,引發幾乎一面倒的批評。但事件的焦點不應放在這個不切實際的言論,重要的反而是他與中國政權的密切關係,和中國對他今天所擁有的技術、以及現正企圖收購的意見平台推特(Twitter)的影響力。


可以用來形容馬斯克這位美國企業家的詞彙很多:創新、有性格、具魅力、高瞻遠矚,還有「語不驚人死不休」。這些年來他創辦的科技公司由特斯拉(Tesla)到SpaceX,可說真正上天下地,但管理這些巨型企業之餘,他仍有足夠時間在推特發文、在其他平台發言,甚至越來越喜歡跳進全世界最具爭議的地緣政治討論。最新的一次就是他於《金融時報》(Financial Times)的訪問中,提議以成立「台灣特區」解決難以避免的台海衝突,甚至應該可以做得比香港寬鬆,即使不能令所有人滿意,但這個安排讓人「較易入口」(palatable)。

這個訪問是在《金融時報》的「與FT共進午餐」系列下進行的。也許馬斯克當晚(這次訪問進行時其實是個晚餐)飲多了瑪格麗塔雞尾酒,說的話沒想清楚吧?不過,訪問者、也是《金融時報的編輯》Roula Khalaf清楚地指出,雖然馬斯克在訪問過程中有時談笑風生,談到中國和特斯拉設於上海的超級工廠時,他卻在一段「最長的沉默」(the longest silence)之後才回答。所以,關於中國的答案,應該不是隨便亂說的。










當年初馬斯克宣布利用Starlink支援烏克蘭的時候,各界一片好評,我不少朋友都興奮地聯想,他會否在中國大陸、香港甚至台灣有需要的時候,提供這個支援?我只好冷冷地說,不要想得太多了。想想他在上海的超級工廠,他在中國賣多少特斯拉汽車,和他在中國政府裡的朋友們。有多少美國企業高層或科技鉅富能與中國駐美大使開車(或自己駕車)兜個風? 馬斯克今年3月時在美國加州就這樣做了。之後他與大使的會談,更被刊登於中國外交部的網站。試想像,如果這事主角是臉書的祖克柏,或是Google的Sundar Pichai,應該第一時間就被召到華盛頓國會聽證會,被議員們狂飆一番吧?只有馬斯克,沒有人能碰他?


老實說,美國和歐洲政府對SpaceX公司所出售的Starlink系統,一直出錢出力,包括他們運往烏克蘭的終端機,一度令馬斯克成為烏克蘭人的英雄。當最近伊朗出現反政府浪潮,美國國務卿布林肯(Antony John Blinken)就在推特上宣布,放寬對伊朗網際網路自由和資訊流通相關的技術出口,美國財政部也立即為相關的制裁令更新豁免,為Starlink開綠燈。如今美國政府如果發現這家他們一直支持和合作的企業,原來被外國政權企圖影響,阻止他們在一些地方提供有助網際網路自由的方案,美國管理者勢必要搞清楚,在馬斯克、他的公司和這些政府之間,究竟發生了什麼事。


馬斯克與中國的關係,早就引起一些人的關注,例如他的太空探索業務對手、亞馬遜的創辦人貝佐斯(Jeff Bezos)今年4月曾在推特發文,問:「中國政府是不是剛在市鎮廣場得了多點影響力?」(Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?)Town square就是鎮上廣場,發言之地的意思,指的是推特平台。而當時貝佐斯還轉發了另一段貼文,提到了三件事:特斯拉在美國以外的全球第二大市場是中國;中國電池生產商是其主要供應者;自2009年起中國已經封殺推特、無法影響推特的內容政策,但這狀況快要改變了──指的就是馬斯克入主推特。另外,日經亞洲的一位評論員說得更直接:「北京可能覺得有能力向馬斯克施壓,要他將某些內容下架,一如中國政府一向所為,如果馬斯克不服從,北京只要開始榨壓特斯拉的中國運作即可。」


(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。聲明:作者在香港擁有一輛他已經不再駕駛的特斯拉Model 3。)

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

[Diplomat] Influencing the Influencer: China and Elon Musk

Influencing the Influencer: China and Elon Musk

Elon Musk’s latest comments on Taiwan should draw our attention to the security implications of his close relationship with – and potential influence from – China.

Elon Musk, the businessman behind Tesla, SpaceX, and many other innovative and successful ventures, is equally well known for his controversial comments, whether posted on Twitter or other channels. The most recent example is his recommendation to “figure out” a special administrative zone for Taiwan, one that is “reasonably palatable” and, he thinks “possibl[y]” or even “probably” could be “more lenient than Hong Kong.”

Given that his comment was featured in a “Lunch with the FT” interview with the Financial Times, a more casual and wide-ranging discussion over the course of a meal, one might first suspect that his remark could have been off-the-cuff, throwaway comment. However, the editor of the Financial Times, Roula Khalaf, who conducted and wrote up the interview, reported that her question about China and the risks to Tesla’s Shanghai mega-factory was met with “the longest silence” before answering, suggesting that Musk’s comments relating to China might have been more deliberate than others.

The naïveté of Musk’s recommendation is easy to see. Public opinion in Taiwan has consistently been against Beijing’s “One Country, Two Systems” formula in recent decades, and increasingly so since the crackdowns in Hong Kong. At the same time, Musk chose to overlook the way that China reneged on its promises of democracy, freedom, and a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong over the course of the last three decades.

From FT’s report, Musk’s proposal for Taiwan was based on his worries about the fallout of the region’s “inevitable” conflict. Though Musk assumed he would still be able to produce cars in Shanghai for Chinese customers – a belief which the interviewer noted as “curious” – he warned that other companies like Apple would be “in deep trouble” and further estimated that the global economy would take a “30 per cent hit.” In other words, his concerns are purely economic, although his proposed solution is definitively political.

Predictably, reactions from Taiwan were lopsidedly negative. As the 2022 mayoral elections across Taiwan are to take place in late November, numerous incumbents and challengers from both sides of the island’s political spectrum jumped at the opportunities to lash out at Musk, while reiterating Taiwan’s insistence on its autonomy, democracy, human rights, and freedom. Even former President Ma Ying-jeou, famous for his outreach to China during his tenure, said that Musk’s proposal was based on “One Country, Two Systems” and so must be unacceptable.

The Mainland Affairs Council of the Taiwan government also flatly rejected Musk’s idea by saying that Taiwan is not a target of commercial transaction or merger and acquisition. Instead, the MAC said it would “welcome” Musk and other global business figures to visit Taiwan to find out for themselves the difference between its innovative economy based on freedom and democracy, compared with communist market control based on coercion and repression.

Even China’s reaction was not entirely positive. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by emphasizing that the Taiwan issue is a matter of internal affairs, implying that Musk’s meddling was not welcomed, while the state-owned CCTV’s news broadcast plainly accused Musk of making “inappropriate comments.” However, a day later, China’s attitude seemed to have softened. The MFA spokesman said he was “glad” to see more people understand and support “peaceful reunification” and “One Country, Two Systems.”

Meanwhile, Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, went on Twitter to “thank” Musk “for his call for peace across the Taiwan Strait,” and took pains to highlight how similar Musk’s proposal was to China’s own “basic principles for resolving the Taiwan question.”

Musk’s More Troubling Disclosure Is China’s Influence on Musk Himself

There is more to this story than Musk’s ill-advised proposal for Taiwan, however. In the FT interview, Musk was also quoted as saying that “Beijing has made clear its disapproval of his recent rollout of Starlink in Ukraine to help the military circumvent Russia’s cut-off of the Internet,” and that “Beijing sought assurances that he would not sell Starlink in China.” Inadvertently or not, Musk may have leaked information about his communications with Chinese officials that Beijing would consider confidential or even a “state secret.” This may well be what initially irked Beijing.

If China were to ban SpaceX’s Starlink sales in the mainland, or even Hong Kong, for that matter, it has all the power to do so, and does not need Musk’s assurances that he would not sell it. What this comment must mean is Musk committed not to sell Starlink in Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a sovereign part of China.

Coincidentally, Taiwan’s government is set to initiate a $17 million (NT$550 million) trial satellite program for network resiliency to keep the island’s central command systems running if conventional connections are cut. While the program is only at its funding stage, authorities are believed to be considering various satellite options, including low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that Starlink is based on. After Musk’s disclosure, should Taiwan still consider Starlink a viable, safe, and secure option? Probably not.

When Musk first announced his Starlink deployment to support Ukraine, many of my friends were hopeful that he could do the same one day for Taiwan in the event of a cyber cutoff by China, or for Hong Kong facing more looming threats of censorship. I would caution them and say, “It’s not so easy.”

Think of Musk’s Tesla Shanghai mega-factory, the volume of cars he sells in China, and the friends he has made in the Chinese government. How many U.S. executives or Big Tech tycoons can take the Chinese ambassador for a drive, or an auto-drive, as Musk did in Fremont, California, in March this year, and then be featured by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website for his “dialogue” with the ambassador? Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg of Meta or Sundar Pichai of Google tried that – they would have been summoned for a few congressional roastings right away. Somehow, only Musk can get away with it all.

But now, Musk has publicly confirmed that China is seeking assurance that he would not sell Starlink in China, meant obviously to target Taiwan. The U.S. government should start to ask him questions, including, what Musk’s answer to Beijing was.

After all, the U.S. and European governments contributed financially to support Musk’s SpaceX to deliver thousands of Starlink terminals to Ukraine, making Musk at first a hero to Ukrainians. Also, after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the U.S. would take action “to advance Internet freedom and the free flow of information” to Iranians, the U.S. Treasury updated its license guidelines to clear Starlink to obtain a sanctions exception to operate in Iran. With all the facilitation and support provided to SpaceX from the U.S. government, if it is disclosed that a foreign power has been influencing the company’s deployment in certain parts of the world with the intention to hinder internet freedom, the U.S. must find out what has happened between Musk, his companies, and this foreign power.

And the potential for Chinese influence to negatively impact U.S. national security goes beyond SpaceX and Tesla. Musk is again seeking to buy all of Twitter, after being sued by the social media company for reneging on his original proposed deal. Shouldn’t Musk’s connection with China warrant intervention by U.S. authorities to examine the national security implications of such a transaction?

Indeed, Musk’s Twitter aspiration combined with his close China connection has attracted attention from no less than fellow billionaire and space exploration rival, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Blue Origin. In an April 2022 tweet, Bezos asked, “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” Bezos also retweeted a message stating a few objective facts – that Tesla’s second biggest market after the U.S. in 2021 was China, and Chinese battery makers are major suppliers for Tesla. Since 2009 when China censored and banned Twitter, its government had almost no leverage over the platform, but that may be about to change.

A commentator for Nikkei Asia, putting it even more directly, wrote, “Beijing may feel that it is able to pressure Musk to take down content that it does not like, as the Chinese government has always done. If Musk refuses, Beijing could start squeezing Tesla’s operations in China.”

This is why it is misguided to simply focus on Musk’s comment on Taiwan. His disclosure about Chinese influence – at least the attempt of it, thereby revealing his own vulnerability – should be taken seriously, in light of not only his present control of the censorship-circumventing Starlink network, but even more importantly, his attempt to take over Twitter. The deal could potentially jeopardize the freedom of expression of all Twitter users by placing the world’s biggest open opinion platform under the indirect domination of the world’s biggest censor, China.

Disclaimer: The author is the owner of a 2020 Model 3 in Hong Kong that he does not drive anymore.

Published: The Diplomat, October 11, 2022