Some VPN Providers Pull Hong Kong Servers Over Security Law Fears
By Eva Xiao
HONG KONG -- At least three virtual private network providers,
which let internet users circumvent censorship and protect their
privacy, are suspending their Hong Kong operations, citing concerns
over Beijing's new national-security law for the city.
The shift comes after Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google and
other large U.S. technology companies said they would suspend
government requests for user data in Hong Kong due to the law. The
legislation has spooked companies because it compels them to hand
over user data in national-security investigations under penalty of
fines and potential jail time.
Citing the broadly defined powers bestowed on police under the
new law, which include the right to search electronic devices --
without a warrant, in some cases -- the VPN providers said they
felt it was safer to close down their servers and avoid routing
online traffic to Hong Kong.
The national security law endangers "the privacy of our users
and all Hong Kong residents," said Colorado-based Private internet
Access, which shut down its Hong Kong servers on Tuesday, a day
after TunnelBear of Toronto said it was disabling its servers in
On Wednesday, IPVanish said that it too was decommissioning
servers and suspending operations in the international financial
hub. "With this legislative change, we, unfortunately, have to
consider Hong Kong and China as one," it said in an online
The impact of removing VPN servers from Hong Kong is likely to
be limited, given that users can connect to other servers in the
region and many VPN providers say they don't save personal
information anyway -- mitigating any breach of privacy if servers
are seized by authorities or hackers.
The withdrawal of the servers, however, shows how widely fear is
spreading over creeping censorship and surveillance from mainland
China. The law empowers police to remove content and collect
information on online messaging, a key target of the legislation
after monthslong protests last year that were frequently organized
via social media apps on phones.
Virtual private networks, which let users mask their location by
encrypting and routing their traffic through other countries,
operate servers around the world. In mainland China, where
international sites like YouTube and Twitter are blocked, VPNs are
often used to circumvent censorship.
Hong Kong officials have repeatedly said the new legislation
won't affect people's basic freedoms. But its passage at the end of
June has already sparked a wave of self-censorship on social media
platforms such as Twitter, where a number of pro-democracy
activists have deactivated or wiped their accounts of protest
Fears of surveillance have also powered a surge in demand for
VPNs, with ProtonVPN of Switzerland reporting a 3,000% increase in
usage from Hong Kong users after the Chinese government announced
plans to impose national security rules on the city at the end of
May. Surfshark, a VPN operator based in the British Virgin Islands,
said it reported over 400% growth in sales after the law came into
effect. Neither company disclosed actual numbers.
Surfshank -- like most of the VPN providers contacted by The
Wall Street Journal -- said they would continue to operate in Hong
Kong, though they would monitor any changes in government policy or
enforcement. A requirement to log user activity, for instance,
would trigger a shutdown of its local servers, said Gabrielle
Racai, communications manager at Surfshark.
"Right now there is nothing indicating that our users are in any
danger, " said Laura Tyrell, a spokeswoman for NordVPN, adding that
the company will react swiftly if it sees risk, citing its shutdown
of servers in Russia last year as an example.
ProtonVPN, which now considers Hong Kong a high-risk region -- a
designation the company applies to Russia and Turkey -- said that
while it is concerned about censorship at the app store-level, it
too will continue to run servers in the finance hub.
"Our worry is that the Hong Kong authorities will begin
demanding the removal of news apps, communications apps and VPNs,"
said a spokesman for ProtonVPN, adding that the company would
challenge moves to compromise its users' privacy or security in
court first, before deciding to pull out of Hong Kong.
"Pre-emptively abandoning Hong Kong to its fate without even a
symbolic resistance sends the wrong message to authoritarian
governments around the world that would seek to deny people their
fundamental rights," he said.
Write to Eva Xiao at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 16, 2020 09:46 ET (13:46 GMT)
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