Facebook temporarily stops Hong Kong data requests

By Paul Mozur

Facebook said Monday that it would temporarily stop processing Hong Kong government requests for user data as the company reviews a sweeping national security law that has chilled political expression in the city.

The social network’s assessment of the law, which has already been used to arrest people who have called for Hong Kong independence, would include human rights considerations, the company said.

The Facebook decision is a rare public questioning of Chinese policy by a large American internet company, and it raises questions about how the security law will be applied online in Hong Kong, where the internet is not censored as it is in the rest of China. Although the social network may ultimately decide to cooperate with some forms of the law, the expression of uncertainty alone is likely to raise hackles in Beijing.

Facebook’s move will also probably put pressure on other American tech giants like Apple and Google, which have not yet clarified how they intend to deal with data requests related to the national security law. Twitter said it paused all data and information requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately after the law went into effect last week. Telegram, a messaging app popular with Hong Kong’s protesters, said Sunday that it would suspend the provision of user data until a consensus was reached on the new law.

Late Monday night, Hong Kong released new rules that give police powers to take down internet posts and punish internet companies that do not comply with data requests.

The national security law, adopted in part to quash the anti-government demonstrations that have smoldered in Hong Kong for more than a year, was introduced last week on the 23rd anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese control. Though officials insist that the sweeping and punitive new rules will affect only a small number of offenders, many worry that it will be used to widely curb dissent in Hong Kong, which, unlike mainland China, continues to enjoy an array of civil liberties.

“We are pausing the review of government requests for user data from Hong Kong pending further assessment of the National Security Law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts,” Facebook wrote in a statement.

“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 statement added. The suspension of data reviews also applies to the messaging app WhatsApp, the company said.

The law has already cast a pall over the city’s internet. Seeking safer ways to communicate, legions have downloaded the encrypted messaging app Signal, pushing it to the top of app store download lists. Others, fearing prosecution for speech crimes, have deleted online posts, likes and even whole accounts.

The new rules announced by Hong Kong on Monday made clearer how the law will apply to online discussion.

The government said that if an internet company failed to comply with a court order to turn over data in cases related to national security, it could be fined almost $13,000 and an employee could face six months in prison. If a person is ordered to remove a post and they refuse, they can face a jail sentence of one year. A separate provision also gave police wide powers to order the deletion of internet posts that threaten national security. How widely enforced the rules will be remains unclear.

The rules leave internet giants like Facebook in an awkward position. The companies regularly provide user data to local law enforcement, yet the vaguely written national security law has criminalized certain types of political speech and branded some forms of vandalism terror crimes.

Going along with the law may be unpopular in the United States, where it has received bipartisan condemnation. Yet standing up against it could raise the ire of Beijing, hurt companies’ bottom lines and put local employees at risk. Though Facebook, Google and Twitter are all blocked in mainland China, all three run valuable advertising businesses in the country.

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