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Facebook joins hands with Google and other tech companies to suspend processing Hong Kong government data requests

15:21 | 07/07/2020

Some giant tech companies, including Facebook Inc, Google Inc, and Twitter Inc, are reviewing a new security law that gives China power to strictly control voices on social media platforms.

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facebook joins hands with google and other tech companies to suspend processing hong kong government data requests
Facebook, Google, and Twitter suspended processing government requests for user data in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

Google, Facebook, and Twitter are pausing the processing of data requests from the Hong Kong government as they review a new security law that went into effect on July 1st. Google put its pause into place as soon as the law took effect last Wednesday.

“When the law took effect, we paused production on any new data requests from Hong Kong authorities,” a Google spokesperson told The Verge in an email, “and we’ll continue to review the details of the new law,” the spokesperson said.

Twitter also halted its handling of government requests as of July 1st, with Facebook announcing its pause on Monday, The New York Times reported.

Social media platforms typically produce private user information in response to valid court orders, depending on the legal process in various countries. But under this new position, all the companies will, at least temporarily, ignore the requests coming from the government of Hong Kong.

The new policies are in response to China’s new national security law in Hong Kong, which was first proposed in May. Hong Kong has traditionally enjoyed significant independence from mainland China, but the central Chinese government has tightened restrictions on speech in Hong Kong in recent months, bringing a gradual end to the “one country, two systems” principle. China’s push toward more control has led to widespread protests across Hong Kong, which began the last year 2019.

facebook joins hands with google and other tech companies to suspend processing hong kong government data requests
Hong Kong used to be a regional financial hub where internet access was unaffected by the firewall imposed in mainland China, which blocks Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Photo: Alex Castro / The Verge

In particular, the new security law gives China the power to limit political dissent against the government, making it unlawful to engage in “secession, subversion, organization and perpetuation of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Those powers are particularly relevant for social platforms, which may be hosting the now-criminalized subversive activities.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter have both been banned in China for several years, part of the so-called “Great Firewall,” under which government censors and monitors track online activity.

The new security law has already compelled several political opposition parties in Hong Kong to disband, NPR reported, and is expected to further chill political dissent against Beijing in Hong Kong.

“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 spokesperson talked to The Verge.

facebook joins hands with google and other tech companies to suspend processing hong kong government data requests
Supporters raise white paper to avoid slogans banned under the national security law as they support arrested anti-law protesters in Hong Kong. Photo: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Twitter says it is reviewing the new law to assess the implications, adding many terms of the new law are “vague and without clear definition,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to The Verge. “Like many public interest organizations, civil society leaders and entities, and industry peers, we have grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law.”

Facebook has a process for reviewing government requests, which takes into account its own policies and local laws as well as international human rights standards, the spokesperson added. “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.”

According to Reuters, tech companies have long operated freely in Hong Kong, a regional financial hub where internet access has been unaffected by the firewall imposed in mainland China, which blocks Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Apple said Monday (July 06) it does not receive requests for user content directly from the Hong Kong government. Instead, it requires authorities there to submit requests under a mutual U.S.-Hong Kong legal assistance treaty. The U.S. Department of Justice receives the requests and reviews them for “legal conformance,” Apple said.

“We’re assessing the new law, which went into effect less than a week ago, and we have not received any content requests since the law went into effect,” Apple said in a statement, citing Reuters.

facebook joins hands with google and other tech companies to suspend processing hong kong government data requests
Tech companies have long operated freely in Hong Kong, a regional financial hub where Internet access has been unaffected by the firewall imposed in mainland China, which blocks Google, Twitter and Facebook. Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP
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Tony Nguyen

(Reuters, The Verge, CNA)