Tech giants including Google, Facebook, and Twitter have warned Hong Kong of a potential exodus if the financial hub presses ahead with planned changes to its privacy laws that would make companies and staff legally liable for doxxing activities on their platforms.
In a letter sent to the local privacy watchdog, an industry group representing 15 top technology firms in Asia voiced concerns over the proposal. The companies say it will curtail free expression and jeopardize the safety of their local employees, who could be prosecuted in case of failure to comply with authorities’ requests to remove content.
Hong Kong introduced amendments to its data protection laws in May following the citywide protests in 2019, during which demonstrators posted personal information of police officers and government officials online. At the same time, government supporters published personal particulars of pro-democracy lawmakers, activists, and journalists on various websites. The practice of putting people’s personal information online so they can be harassed by others is known as doxxing.
The data protection proposals suggest that violators of the “anti-doxxing law” receive as much as five years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($128,800).
The industry group Asia Internet Coalition called doxxing “a matter of serious concern” but said the proposed law would prompt technology companies to “refrain from investing and offering their services in Hong Kong, thereby depriving Hong Kong businesses and consumers, whilst also creating new barriers to trade.”
The letter, sent to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data on June 25, was seen by Nikkei Asia. The coalition’s members include Apple, Facebook, Google, Expedia, Amazon, Line, LinkedIn, Rakuten, SAP, Airbnb, Twitter, Grab, Yahoo, Booking.com, and Cloudflare.
A spokesperson for the Singapore-based association told Nikkei Asia that the letter shares concerns about Asia’s tech industry, and it is “inaccurate” to say that any of its members plan to quit the Hong Kong market.
Global technology businesses face an increasingly uncertain future in Hong Kong after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the Asian financial center a year ago to clamp down on political dissent. Major tech companies said they have since suspended requests from Hong Kong law enforcement bodies for user data.
Facebook refused all 202 Hong Kong government requests for user information in the six months after the security law took effect, including data related to Instagram, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Oculus, the company’s transparency report showed.
The coalition’s letter, sent with seven pages of recommendations to the proposed legal amendments, said that the vague definition of “doxxing acts” 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 the prohibition on republishing personal information already available in the public domain could deter the free flow of information, which allows Hong Kong to retain its status as an international trading hub.
The group emphasized that criminal prosecution of employees upon non-compliance is “unnecessary and excessive” as these platforms have no editorial control over users’ doxxing actions, and most services are provided by offshore regional headquarters.
“The possibility of prosecuting subsidiary employees will create uncertainties for businesses and affect Hong Kong’s development as an innovation and technology hub,” the association wrote, noting that a free and open internet has been critical for Hong Kong’s growth in those areas.
Jeff Paine, the managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, has requested a video meeting with Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner to discuss the proposed amendments and offer recommendations to ease companies’ concerns.
But the privacy watchdog in Hong Kong strongly rebuts claims that the new law would affect freedom of expression and interest of foreign investors.
“The amendments only aimed to address unlawful doxxing activities, where the scope of offense will be clearly stipulated in the legislation,” Privacy Commissioner Ada Chung told Hong Kong Commercial Radio, adding that all stakeholders’ opinions are welcome and that she would meet with the coalition soon to understand the group’s views.