Tuesday, October 10, 2023

[Nikkei] Bit by bit, the internet is getting smaller in Hong Kong

Bit by bit, the internet is getting smaller in Hong Kong

City authorities are trying out new methods to eliminate 'undesirable' content

Many observers have wondered whether China's Great Firewall might be extended to Hong Kong.

The good news is that since the Chinese legislature imposed a new national security law on the city in July 2020, there has been no attempt to bring in the country's system for the wholesale filtration and blockage of foreign websites and global internet platforms.

The bad news, though, is that internet controls are increasingly being applied in a target-specific manner in Hong Kong, alongside widespread self-censorship that is even affecting the city's growing diaspora.

To understand where things may go from here, it is imperative to first understand where the Hong Kong government's legal power to block internet content and services originates. Two recent cases demonstrate how the Hong Kong authorities are making censorship happen.

The first involves the unlicensed cryptocurrency exchange JPEX. In recent weeks, Hong Kong police have arrested more than 25 people for involvement in alleged fraud on the exchange that is said to have cost more than 2,500 victims some $180 million in losses. JPEX is fighting the crackdown and seeking to revive its business, but its website is now blocked in Hong Kong.

This is the first such incident to come to a light for a business that until now was treated like any other company operating openly in Hong Kong -- and has brought attention to a new power the government has quietly given itself.

It turns out that last year when Hong Kong residents were hit with a massive wave of telephone and online scams like neighboring economies, the Hong Kong Communications Authority discreetly added a new clause to the Unified Carrier Licenses under which phone networks, internet service providers and other telecommunications companies operate in the city.

The new language on "blocking transmission or delivery of calls or messages and suspension of service due to fraudulent use" mandates that licensees must carry out "necessary actions" upon request by the authority or "any relevant law enforcement agency."

The vagueness of terms like "fraudulent use," and the broad scope of power vested to any "law enforcement agency" to initiate content removal could easily lead to abuse. The public and the media have no way of knowing whether or how many times this power has actually been invoked.

The second example concerns the protest song, "Glory to Hong Kong." After a series of incidents at international sporting events in which the song was played instead of the Chinese national anthem by organizers referencing Google search results for "Hong Kong national anthem," Hong Kong's secretary for justice applied for a court injunction to ban the song from being stored, played or broadcast on the internet.

The authorities apparently wanted to avoid the negative repercussions for businesses if it indicted a global internet platform operator like YouTube under the Hong Kong National Security Law, an option the court suggested the government could take when it rejected the injunction request. The government is now appealing that rejection to a higher court.

Common to the authorities' approach in both the JPEX and "Glory" cases is a strategy of bypassing normal administrative and legislative processes that might give more room for public discussion and input.

Since the enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law, internet freedom has become a top risk concern for global technology companies like Google and Meta which employ hundreds of people in the city, as well as for other multinational companies and financial institutions.

Free access to data and information has long been viewed as a key element of the "One Country, Two Systems" paradigm that makes Hong Kong a unique attractive investment destination in China and Asia's leading financial center.

The government is clearly aware of these concerns and seems to be trying to minimize negative impacts on investor confidence while simultaneously maintaining national security as its top priority.

The recent cases, though, suggest that the authorities intend to increase their power to order the removal of "undesirable" content and services. Alleged scams like JPEX and incidents such as ransomware attacks on public bodies such as Cyberport and the city's Consumer Council will undoubtedly be used to justify the need to give citizens "more protection" from online dangers.

Indeed, the government remains keen to enact a cybersecurity law and a misinformation law, as well as local national security legislation against treason, theft of state secrets and other offenses in the next year or two.

Hong Kong may yet prove a shining example of how new-era Chinese censorship can thrive without a Great Firewall. But selective purges of online content will do no favors for the city's efforts to remain economically competitive or to promote a "good Hong Kong story" to improve its image on the world stage.

Foreign investors should watch this space carefully. Internet companies should also look beyond legal compliance and push back against attempts to maneuver them into playing a role in the restriction of online freedoms. The companies can be assured that they still hold some leverage as Hong Kong needs and wants them around as much as ever.

Charles Mok is a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center and former legislative councilor in Hong Kong. George Chen is a managing director in Hong Kong for The Asia Group, a Washington-based business and policy consulting firm. He was previously head of greater China public policy for Meta.

Published by Nikkei Asia, October 10, 2023