By Newley Purnell
HONG KONG -- Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. are among
tech companies that 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.
"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," a Facebook spokeswoman
said in a Monday statement.
Earlier in the day, a spokeswoman for Facebook-owned WhatsApp
said reviews would be paused "pending further assessment of the
impact of the National Security Law, including formal human-rights
due diligence and consultations with human-rights experts."
TikTok, a buzzy short-video platform owned by Chinese technology
giant Bytedance Inc., said Tuesday morning in China that it would
pull its app from Google and Apple Inc.'s app stores in Hong Kong
within a week, in light of "recent developments."
In separate statements, Twitter and Alphabet Inc.-owned Google
said they paused all data and information requests from Hong Kong
authorities immediately when the law went into effect last week.
Snap Inc., owner of Snapchat, declined to comment.
The moves have put U.S. technology titans 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.
Rules for implementing the new law announced by Hong Kong's
government late Monday and set to take legal effect Tuesday, say
that if police suspect an "electronic message" may endanger
"national security," authorities may ask the publisher, platform,
host or network service provider to remove or restrict access to
it. Those who publish messages and don't comply face a hefty fine
and imprisonment for one year, according to the rules.
Facebook, WhatsApp and its Instagram service, along with Twitter
and Google unit YouTube, have long operated freely in Hong Kong
without restrictions from China's firewall that applies to mainland
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 June
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. The city's citizens are among the most
connected in the world: Some 91% of the population uses the
internet, according to consulting firm We Are Social, and 98% of
internet users between the ages of 16 and 64 communicate by means
of social media or messaging apps.
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 announced by tech firms.
"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
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
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.
Tech companies regularly receive requests from government
entities world-wide to provide user data, for uses including law
enforcement or preventing serious injury or death. Facebook in the
last six months of 2019 received 241 government requests for data
on users in Hong Kong, according to a company report. It produced
data for 46% of the requests.
To be sure, Facebook, like other tech companies, must follow
local laws in the countries where it operates, whether that is
Vietnam, Singapore, Saudi Arabia or the U.S. The volume of requests
received by Facebook from Hong Kong authorities is also much
smaller than the more than 51,000 obtained from U.S. authorities
between July and December of last year. Facebook said it produced
some information on 88% of requests from U.S. authorities.
"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 may
face criminal action and punishment.
That action could include Hong Kong authorities arresting
company employees who work locally or taking control of servers,
said Greg Pilarowski, a lawyer and founder of the boutique law firm
Piller Legal in San Francisco and Shanghai. Without a physical
presence in Hong Kong, though, U.S. companies may want to wait and
see how strictly the law is enforced and whether mainland China's
internet firewall will be extended to Hong Kong.
"What will happen is essentially a chess game," said Mr.
Pilarowski, adding that given the small size of Hong Kong, he
doesn't expect potentially losing that market to be a major problem
for large U.S. tech companies.
The tech companies' moves come 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
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
--Joyu Wang, Sarah E. Needleman and Liza Lin contributed to this
Write to Newley Purnell at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 07, 2020 00:20 ET (04:20 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Historical Stock Chart
From Jul 2020 to Aug 2020
Historical Stock Chart
From Aug 2019 to Aug 2020