Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, has brushed off a warning by major tech companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter that they may quit the Chinese-controlled city if authorities go ahead with plans to change privacy laws.
Lam told reporters on Tuesday that the proposed changes would only target illegal “doxxing” – the act of sharing people’s private details online without their consent.
That practice came under scrutiny in Hong Kong during the anti-government protests of 2019, when police officers were targeted after their details were released online. Some of the officers’ home addresses and children’s schools were also exposed, and they and their families were threatened.
The Hong Kong government is now proposing changes to the city’s privacy laws, including imposing a one-year jail term and a maximum fine of one million Hong Kong dollars ($128,731) for offenders who disclose personal data without consent – with the intention of intimidating, harassing or causing psychological harm to someone and his or her family members.
On June 25, an Asian industry group – that includes Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple Inc and LinkedIn – sent a letter to the Hong Kong government, expressing concern that the changes could also make them liable for the malicious sharing of inidviduals’ information online.
Additionally, the Asia Internet Coalition said that while “doxxing is a matter of serious concern”, the proposed legal changes could also see individuals hit with “severe sanctions”.
The contents of the letter were first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Monday.
“Introducing sanctions aimed at individuals is not aligned with global norms and trends,” the letter said, adding that any anti-doxxing legislation “must be built upon principles of necessity and proportionality”.
The group warned, “The only way to avoid these sanctions for technology companies would be to refrain from investing and offering their services in Hong Kong, thereby depriving Hong Kong businesses and consumers, whilst also creating new barriers to trade.”
‘Broad and vague’
Lam, however, dismissed those concerns on Tuesday, likening the new legal changes to a China-imposed national security law that she said had been “slandered and defamed”.
The security law, imposed in June last year, punishes any acts Beijing deems secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Rights groups have said the law has “decimated” freedoms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, but the city government said it has restored stability after the protests of 2019.
With the changes to the privacy law, Lam said her government was only “targeting illegal doxxing and empowering the privacy commissioners to investigate and carry out operations”.
She added that the city’s privacy commission would be happy to meet tech industry representatives to deal with any anxieties they might have, but suggested her government was determined to press forward with fast-tracking the new changes.
“Of course, it would be ideal to relieve this anxiety when we make the legislation. But sometimes it needs to be demonstrated via implementation,” she said.
Rights groups have also expressed concern over the proposed changes, with Article 19, a press freedom group, calling the new amendments “broad and vague”.
“International law is clear that restrictions on the freedom of expression or other fundamental human rights for that matter, must be prescribed by law in pursuit of a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportionate,” said Michael Caster, Asia digital programme manager at Article 19.
“What we see with these changes is that they clearly fail to meet this three-part test,” he told Al Jazeera from the Thai capital, Bangkok. “And in going after tech companies, in going after social media platforms, or hosts of the potentially offending content, what the law proposes to do is to violate a very fundamental norm called intermediary liability principle – which would not hold the hosts of this third party content accountable for what users might put online.”
Caster said he expected to see a “noticeable split” in the way different companies responded to the Hong Kong move, with firms prioritising the impact on their access to China’s vast market.
He added, “What’s happening right now is part of a larger campaign orchestrated by China to carve away any of the remaining fundamental freedoms of expression and access to information in Hong Kong and really turn that city from the relatively free society that it was to the authoritarian state model that Beijing prefers.”