The big three internet and social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Google have warned the Hong Kong government that they could quit the city altogether if new controversial data protection laws ostensibly to "combat doxxing" are pushed through. The Silicon Valley giants reportedly made their stance known "privately" according to reporting in The Wall Street Journal Monday.
Without doubt the new proposed legal amendments to existing data protection laws are closely related to the pro-China crackdown which has for many months utterly stifled the kind of large-scale pro-independence protests which defined much of 2019. Facebook, Twitter and Google's anger over the possible beefed-up law centers on the part that would make them liable for revealing individuals' private information online. Also in the cross-hairs is Amazon.
Doxxing was widely viewed as a favored tactic of young anti-China activists, which reportedly targeted pro-mainland HK officials and entities while sometimes violent protests raged in the streets. The amendments were first proposed in May by Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau and would also impose steep penalties on individuals caught doxxing, including up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million Hong Kong dollars (or over $120,000).
The US companies are also alarmed at how vague the definition of doxxing might be defined by HK authorities at a moment the 'national security law' continues to be used as a broad, blunt instrument for pursuing activists and dissidents. At this point, a number of the most prominent protest leaders are either in jail or in exile, with Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Jimmy Lai currently serving prison sentences related to things like the "anti-mask" law and unauthorized assembly.
The tech giants worry their own local employees and system administrators would inevitably be subject to criminal charges based merely on the actions of random individual users, including what might be viewed in the West as political free speech, but which Hong Kong and its Beijing backers would view as banned speech. Google's Hong Kong Web site is considered to be much less censored when compared to mainland China's filters designed to prevent access to government-critical information and sources.
The previously undisclosed June 25 letter from an industry group through which Facebook, Twitter, and Google raised their alarm said bluntly that—
"The only way to avoid these sanctions for technology companies would be to refrain from investing and offering the services in Hong Kong..."
The letter calls the proposed penalties "completely disproportionate and unnecessary response" that will cast a broad enough legal net that will no doubt punish "innocent acts of sharing information online," according to select quotes unveiled for the first time in WSJ.
Though it remains to be seen whether they would go through with this 'nuclear option' - as Google and Facebook have elsewhere threatened to - for example in Australia for very different reasons (related to advertising revenue and new government efforts to ensure greater reward for local news sources).
The city' some 7.5 million population doesn't make it a huge user-base compared to much of the rest of the US companies' global presence; however, it's unthinkable to many that such a central international financial hub could be without Google or Twitter, for example. It would also certainly negatively impact any future protests movements or activists' ability to rapidly share information, as the law will also extend to Telegram, or any alternative platforms.
Paul Haswell of Hong Kong-based law firm Pinsent Masons summarized the slippery slope scenario easily foreseeable if the law goes into effect: "A broad reading of the rules could suggest that even an unflattering photo of a person taken in public, or of a police officer’s face on the basis that this would constitute personal data, could run afoul of the proposed amendments if posted with malice or an intention to cause harm, he said," according to WSJ.