On Monday, several big technology and communications companies announced that they would be making changes to their policies with Hong Kong. The companies cited concerns over the political changes that have taken place in Hong Kong in light of the recently enacted national security law by Beijing.
Viral video app TikTok announced that they would be halting operations in Hong Kong altogether and would pull the app from mobile app stores over the next few days. Some in the city reported as early as Tuesday that they were unable to find or download the app.
While TikTok is owned by Chinese-based ByteDance Ltd., the app is not available in mainland China and acts separately from its mainland counterpart Douyin. It was specifically designed so that it could not be accessed by mainland China in efforts to appeal to international audiences.
TikTok, which is run by former Walt Disney Co. executive Kevin Mayer, has previously said that their user data is not stored in China. They also said that content decisions and allowances were made independently and that management would not comply with any attempt from the Chinese government to access data or enforce censorship regulations.
Despite their insistence that TikTok functions independently from its Chinese parent company, foreign governments are still concerned over the app’s ability to access users’ valuable personal data.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States was “certainly looking at” a ban on Chinese social media apps, including TikTok. Pompeo went on to cite concerns about domestic companies being made “to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”
India has also banned TikTok along with 58 other Chinese apps as tensions between the two countries have escalated following a violent clash at the countries’ shared border in the Himalayas.
Meanwhile, rival companies Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft also released statements on Monday saying that they would temporarily stop processing requests for user data from the Hong Kong government as they review the new national security legislation.
Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, said that their assessment would include “formal human rights due diligence and consultations with human rights experts.”
“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,” a Facebook company spokesperson said.
Zoom Video Communications Inc. and the messaging app Telegram have released similar statements in recent days, with the latter saying that it would deny requests for user data from Hong Kong authorities “until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city.”
Telegram was particularly popular among Hong Kongers last year as the main platform for sharing pro-democracy messages and information about the ongoing protests.
Under the security law – which has been in effect since last Wednesday – acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces could be punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The law would also make it possible for individuals working from outside the region to be prosecuted and would require foreign companies to turn over potentially sensitive information.
Since its enactment, many Hong Kongers have started deleting messages, posts and accounts from social media platforms in fear of prosecution under the broadly worded legislation.
New regulations announced on Monday grant Hong Kong law enforcement further powers to take down internet posts and punish companies that do not comply with data rules. In case of noncompliance, companies could receive fines of up to HK$100,000 (US$13,000) and authorities would be able to detain employees for six months.
This presents the internet giants with a moral dilemma going forward. While Big Tech companies regularly provide user data to law enforcement, certain types of political speech and posts could be branded as crimes under the vague provisions of the new law.
Compliance with the law could incite backlash in the US, which has expressed strong bipartisan opposition to the Chinese law. On the other hand, resistance could put employees at risk as well as anger Chinese and Hong Kong authorities.
Furthermore, any decision made by the companies could potentially jeopardize the future of internet freedoms currently enjoyed in Hong Kong. With Facebook, Twitter and Google all banned in China, many fear that the law would lead to the same suffocating restrictions being imposed on Hong Kong.
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