Editor's note: Several other companies, including Google, Microsoft and Zoom announced they are also pausing processing of data requests by Hong Kong authorities.
Some of the world’s most powerful social media companies will temporarily stop processing requests for user data from Hong Kong authorities after China imposed a controversial national security law on the special administrative region.
Companies including Facebook and Twitter receive thousands of data and information requests from law enforcement around the world investigating crimes or seeking to remove content illegal in their jurisdictions. For example, in 2019, Facebook received 384 requests for data from authorities in Hong Kong, according to the company’s Transparency Report.
“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.”
“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,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote in an email to The World, which was the first to report on Facebook’s decision.
Facebook’s pause applies to the family of apps owned by the company, including WhatsApp and Instagram, according to the spokesperson.
Facebook’s peers are also taking similar steps. Twitter said it paused all data and information requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately after the law went into effect last week.
“Like many public interest organisations, civil society leaders and entities, and industry peers, we have grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to The World.
Telegram, a Dubai-based messaging platform that became very popular among pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, said it would also temporarily refrain from processing such requests “until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city.”
The national security law, which was imposed by Beijing on the city last week, calls on Hong Kong authorities to “strengthen supervision and ... regulation” over the internet and criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. Critics say offenses are too broadly defined, and that the law gives Beijing broader powers to crack down on what was previously considered acceptable speech in Hong Kong — both online and offline.
“In Hong Kong, where you previously had a free and open internet, it's likely that a lot of that criminalization of those broad categories of activities is going to mean that people can't speak and organize nearly as freely online as they could previously,” said Justin Sherman, with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.
Those living in Hong Kong say that’s already beginning to happen, and some say they’re concerned that Beijing will tap into the law and implement the kind of widespread surveillance and censorship that happens on the mainland.
“People have [started] to scrub their social media presence and are starting to self-censor and limit what they say online … because of the question marks the national security [law raises].”
“People have [started] to scrub their social media presence and are starting to self-censor and limit what they say online … because of the question marks the national security [law raises],” said Janis Wong, a Hong Kong resident and PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
For Wong and others in Hong Kong, one big question mark has to do with whether the law will be applied retroactively to go after people for content they posted online before the law went into effect.
“People are extra cautious as a result of that. They’re not only policing or self-censoring what they're doing now, but actually going back in time and changing or deleting and moving some posts,” Wong said.