Tech giants threaten to leave Hong Kong if data privacy laws change

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Alphabet, told the Hong Kong government the companies may leave the city if new anti-doxing laws are adopted

Author of the article:

Daniel Johnson

Publishing date:

Jul 05, 2021  •  July 5, 2021  •  2 minute read  •  22 Comments

The Facebook Inc. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp apps are arranged for a photograph on a smartphone in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Internet giants from Facebook Inc. to Google and Twitter Inc. say they won’t process user data requests from the Hong Kong government amid concerns that a new security law could criminalize protests. Photo by Photographer: Roy Liu/Bloomberg ORG XMIT: 775531720

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Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet and Google privately warned the Hong Kong government that they may stop operating in the city if new data-protection law changes increase liability for the companies.

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A letter sent by industry group Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) on June 25, representing the tech firms, stated that the companies are concerned that the new rules could leave their employees exposed to potential criminal investigations or prosecutions.

“The only way to avoid these sanctions for technology companies would be to refrain from investing and offering the services in Hong Kong,” reads the letter, obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

The updated data protection laws, proposed by Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau in May could make the companies liable for instances of malicious online sharing of people’s information, also known as doxing. The proposed new laws include a punishment of up to 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($159,184CAD) and a prison sentence of up to five years.

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The Hong Kong Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said the changes were needed to combat instances of doxing that were occurring frequently in the city during the 2019 protests.

AIC Managing Director Jeff Paine said in the same letter to the Hong Kong Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data that while his group is against doxing, vague wording in the proposed new law could open up companies and local staff members to criminal investigations and prosecution due to doxing offences by users of tech platforms.

“Introducing sanctions aimed at individuals is not aligned with global norms and trends,” Paine was quoted.

Instead of the current proposed change, the AIC urged adopting a clearer scope as to what would constitute a violation and also asked for a videoconference discussion with the office.

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Through a spokeswoman, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data stated that it received the letter from the AIC and said that new rules were needed to address doxing.

“The amendments will not have any bearing on free speech,” said the spokeswoman, adding that the government “strongly rebuts any suggestion that the amendments may in any way affect foreign investment in Hong Kong.”

The new anti-doxing laws will be put to the Hong Kong Legislative Council in a bill expected to be approved by the end of the legislative year, according to Paul Haswell, the head of technology, media and telecom law at Pinsent Masons, a Hong Kong-based firm.

The tech firms have legitimate concerns, Haswell said and depending on the wording of the legislation, staff operating in the city could be held responsible for what users post.

Haswell said that if the new rules are not managed with common sense they “could make it potentially a risk to post anything relating to another individual on the internet.”

With additional files from Reuters

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Daniel Johnson