The Hong Kong government will gain the power to restrict local access to the world’s largest technology platforms under legislation to punish “doxing” offenses expected to be passed this year.
The measures are the government’s latest effort to assert greater control over civil liberties in the territory following pro-democracy protests in 2019, when critics and government supporters engaged in doxing by posting personal information of police, lawmakers, journalists and online protesters.
But the anti-doxing bill, which will change Hong Kong’s privacy laws, has been criticized for being too broad, leaving ISPs and citizens vulnerable to arbitrary accusations and unfair prosecution. Critics said it could also be used to limit free speech.
The amendment, introduced in the city’s pro-government legislature on Monday, came days after the Biden administration issued a stern warning about the risks to U.S. companies operating in Chinese territory and a year after Beijing imposed a radical national security law.
Authorities have introduced other restrictions on information in recent months, such as limiting access to company register data and censoring films considered a threat to national security.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily, which has frequently criticized the government, recently closed under political pressure. Police on Wednesday arrested editors who worked for the tabloid, including former executive editor Lam Man-chung.
Under the Privacy Law Amendment, Hong Kong could order platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to remove content classified as doxing and block local access to the platform if the company does not. did not comply.
Employees of tech companies based in or entering Chinese territory could also be sentenced to jail if they had not removed this material under the broad powers that will be granted to the city’s privacy commissioner.
“It makes me nervous,” said Paul Haswell, technology partner at Pinsent Masons in Hong Kong. “The punishments are among the most severe in the world for doxing. “
Employees who fail to remove equipment face two years in prison and a fine of HK $ 100,000 (US $ 12,865). Those convicted of doxing could face up to five years in prison and HK $ 1 million in fines.
Supporters of the legislation have argued that strict rules are needed to combat the misuse of personal information.
“Given the serious damage done by doxing to victims like the police and their families, there must be heavy penalties,” Holden Chow, a pro-Beijing city lawmaker, told the Financial Times.
However, the Asia Internet Coalition, a lobbying consortium representing American Internet companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, warned last month that the legislation could force tech groups to stop providing services in Hong Kong due to the increased risks to their staff. AIC has since added that none of its members are considering leaving the city.
Erick Tsang, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional and continental affairs, attempted to reassure tech companies on Monday. “If the employees of these companies in Hong Kong are only responsible for general marketing or administrative work, and they do not have the authority to act on the ‘doxing’ content, they do not have too much to s ‘worry about legal responsibilities,’ he said. .
The AIC said the proposed laws were too vague, as they did not explicitly define doxing or the “psychological damage” caused by it that would be used as a test for prosecution.
The presence of large social media and search engine platforms in Hong Kong enhances the city’s attractiveness for international businesses compared to mainland China, where access to information is restricted in a system called “Great Firewall ”.
Media companies could also fall under the legislation. Haswell, the attorney, warned that it was not clear whether even posting a photo of a person without their consent could be considered doxing.
However, supporters of the bill said normal reporting was covered by existing exemptions.
The head of a US law firm in Hong Kong said international business groups have requested new risk assessments in light of anti-doxing legislation and the opinion of the Biden administration.
“Communicating the potential impacts of this problem to headquarters is more urgent than I have seen before,” the lawyer said.
Additional reporting by Mercedes Ruehl in Singapore