Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 6 July 2020

Facebook, WhatsApp Suspending Review of Hong Kong Requests for User Data

Action comes ‘pending further assessment’ of China’s national-security law for territory

The move puts Facebook on a potential collision course with Beijing.

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HONG KONG— Facebook Inc. FB +1.22% and its WhatsApp messaging service have suspended processing requests for user data from Hong Kong law-enforcement agencies following China’s imposition of a national-security law on the city.
WhatsApp is “pausing” such reviews “pending further assessment of the impact of the National Security Law, including formal human-rights due diligence and consultations with human-rights experts,” a WhatsApp spokeswoman said in response to a Wall Street Journal query on Monday.
A spokeswoman for parent company Facebook said in a later statement that it was doing the same. “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions,” the Facebook statement said.
The move puts the U.S. technology titan on a potential collision course with Beijing, after China fast-tracked the national-security legislation that includes a provision mandating local authorities to take measures to supervise and regulate the city’s previously unfettered internet.
Facebook, WhatsApp and its Instagram service, along with Twitter Inc. TWTR +3.76% and Google unit YouTube, have long operated freely in Hong Kong without restrictions from China’s firewall that applies to mainland internet users.
Citizens in the city have long been accustomed to using them to express political opinions and show support for protests against China’s increasing influence, but in recent days some users and activists have scrubbed or deleted their social-media accounts for fear of falling afoul of the new law that came into force late June 30. Foreign businesses frequently cite the free flow of information in Hong Kong as one of the most important factors for being located in the financial hub.
Dubai-based Telegram Group Inc. said in a statement that was earlier reported by the Hong Kong Free Press that it doesn’t intend to process “any data requests related to its Hong Kong users until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city.” A representative for the messaging service said in a statement that the company “has never shared any data with the Hong Kong authorities in the past.”
Hong Kong’s government and police force didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Some activists and advocates for internet privacy welcomed the moves by Facebook and Telegram.

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“I think it’s a good sign. They are upholding freedom of speech and user privacy,” said Francis Fong, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation trade association. Mr. Fong is also a member of the standing committee on technological developments for Hong Kong’s office of the privacy commissioner for personal data.
WhatsApp is popular in Hong Kong among members of the general public, Mr. Fong said, but to discuss more sensitive matters people often use services such as Telegram or Signal, another messaging service.
Hong Kong police in May said they arrested a 28-year-old man who according to evidence they displayed publicly was the owner of a Telegram channel, or group, of demonstrators for allegedly “conspiring or soliciting to commit murder” and “incitement to commit criminal damage.” A police superintendent said at the time police believed the man posted messages to about 22,000 followers including material such as tutorials on making gasoline bombs and instructions for how to murder police officers.
Facebook in the last six months of 2019 received 241 government requests for data on users in Hong Kong, according to a company report. Facebook, along with other tech firms, must follow local laws in the countries where it operates.
“WhatsApp believes in the right for people to have a private conversation online,” the company’s spokeswoman said. It isn’t known how many users it has in the city of 7.5 million.
The implementation of the new law means U.S. tech companies in the city now face a delicate balancing act, analysts say. If authorities here ask them to remove user accounts or their content, they risk alienating their user bases. If they refuse, they could invite scrutiny from Beijing and legal action.
WhatsApp’s move comes amid rising concerns that Beijing’s new rules might be used to tamp down political discussion in Hong Kong. Public libraries in recent days have removed from circulation several books by pro-democracy figures, saying the works needed to be reviewed to ensure they comply with the security law.
China imposed the law on Hong Kong as part of efforts to crush protests that ripped through the city last year, turning more violent even as the movement retained broad popular support. The law targets activities related to secession, subversion, terrorism and with foreign or external forces to endanger national security.
Twitter said in a statement last week it “has grave concerns” about the law and is “committed to protecting the people using our service and their freedom of expression.” Twitter said it is reviewing the new rules, “particularly as some of the terms of the law are vague and without clear definition.”
Twitter didn’t immediately respond to fresh questions asked Monday.

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