U.S. tech giants warn Hong Kong data law could kick them out

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HONG KONG – Major international tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, have warned Hong Kong of a potential exodus if the financial center pursues planned changes to its privacy laws that would make businesses and staff legally responsible for doxxing activities on their platforms.

In a letter to the local privacy watchdog, an industry group representing 15 leading tech companies in Asia raised concerns about the proposal. The companies say this will reduce freedom of expression and jeopardize the safety of their local employees, who could be prosecuted for failing to comply with authorities’ requests to remove content.

Hong Kong introduced changes to its data protection laws in May following city-wide protests in 2019, in which protesters posted personal information online about police officers and government officials. government. At the same time, government supporters posted personal information about pro-democracy lawmakers, activists and journalists on various websites. The practice of posting people’s personal information online so that they can be harassed by others is known as doxxing.

Data protection proposals suggest that violators of the “anti-doxxing law” face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to HK $ 1 million ($ 128,800).

Industry group Asia Internet Coalition called the doxxing “a matter of serious concern,” but said the proposed law would encourage technology companies to “refrain from investing and offering their services in Hong Kong, thereby depriving Hong Kong businesses and consumers, while creating new barriers to Commerce. “

The letter, sent to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data on June 25, was seen by Nikkei Asia. Coalition members include Apple, Facebook, Google, Expedia, Amazon.com, Line, LinkedIn, Rakuten, SAP, Airbnb, Twitter, Grab, Yahoo, Booking.com and Cloudflare.

A spokesperson for the Singapore-based association said the letter shares concerns from the Asian tech industry and that it is “inaccurate” to say that members are considering leaving the Hong Kong market.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday defended the need for a new law at her weekly press conference, citing previous doxxing incidents and popular support for data protection.

“We understand that legislative work can sometimes trigger concerns, which we can address in the process. Yet we have to prove our case by practice,” Lam said, comparing the implementation of the anti-doxxing law to that of the national security law imposed by Beijing. the city a year ago.

“The imposition of the security law ultimately did not lead to the things that those who tainted the law claimed it would,” she said.

Global tech companies face an increasingly uncertain future in Hong Kong since the imposition of the Security Law to quell political dissent. Big tech companies said they have since suspended requests from Hong Kong law enforcement agencies for user data.

Facebook denied all 202 requests for information about users from the Hong Kong government in the six months following the entry into force of the security law, including data relating to Instagram, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Oculus, according to the company’s transparency report.

The Asia Internet Coalition letter, sent with seven pages of recommended changes to the proposed legal amendments, said the vague definition of “acts of doxxing” would create “problematic ambiguity.” The amendments describe doxxing broadly as the disclosure of information without one’s consent to “threaten, intimidate or harass” other people or “cause psychological harm”.

The letter also noted that a ban on republishing personal information already available in the public domain could discourage the free flow of information, allowing Hong Kong to retain its status as a hub for international trade.

The group stressed that criminal prosecution of employees for non-compliance is “unnecessary and excessive” because these platforms have no editorial control over users’ doxxing actions and most of the services are provided by headquarters. regional offshore.

“The possibility of suing employees of subsidiaries will create uncertainties for companies and affect Hong Kong’s development as a hub of innovation and technology,” the association wrote, noting that a free and open Internet has been essential for Hong Kong’s growth in these areas.

Facebook declined to comment on the letter, saying the AIC speaks on behalf of the company on Hong Kong legislation. Google and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

Jeff Paine, chief executive of the Asia Internet Coalition, requested a video meeting with the Hong Kong privacy commissioner to discuss the proposed changes and offer recommendations to allay business concerns.

But the Hong Kong privacy watchdog has rejected claims that the new law affects free speech or the interests of foreign investors.

“The amendments are only aimed at combating illegal doxxing activities, where the scope of the offense will be clearly stipulated in the legislation,” Privacy Commissioner Ada Chung told Hong Kong Commercial Radio, adding that opinions of all stakeholders are welcome and that she would meet with the coalition to quickly understand the group’s point of view.


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