Hong Kong dismisses Google, Facebook warning over privacy laws

Asian industry group that includes Google, Facebook and Twitter is threatening to quit Hong Kong over new anti-doxxing legislation.

Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, has brushed off a warning by major tech companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter that they may quit the Chinese-controlled city if authorities go ahead with plans to change privacy laws.

Lam told reporters on Tuesday that the proposed changes would only target illegal “doxxing” – the practice of sharing people’s private details online without their consent.

The practice came under scrutiny in Hong Kong during the anti-government protests of 2019, when police officers were targeted after their details were released online. Some of the officers’ home addresses and children’s schools were also exposed, and they and their families were targeted with threats.

The Hong Kong government is now proposing changes to the city’s privacy laws, including imposing a one-year jail term and a maximum fine of one million Hong Kong dollars ($128,731) for offenders who disclose personal data without consent – with the intention of intimidating, harassing or causing psychological harm to someone and his or her family members.

On June 25, an Asian industry group – that includes Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple Inc and LinkedIn – sent a letter to the Hong Kong government, saying that while “doxxing is a matter of serious concern”, the proposed legal changes could see individuals hit with “severe sanctions”.

The contents of the letter were first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Monday.

“Introducing sanctions aimed at individuals is not aligned with global norms and trends,” the letter from the Asia Internet Coalition said, adding that any anti-doxxing legislation “must be built upon principles of necessity and proportionality”.

The group warned, “The only way to avoid these sanctions for technology companies would be 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.”

Lam, however, dismissed those concerns on Tuesday, likening the new legal changes to a China-imposed national security law that she said had been “slandered and defamed”.

The security law, imposed in June last year, punishes any acts Beijing deems secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Rights groups have said the law has “decimated” freedoms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, but the city government said it has restored stability after the protests of 2019.

With the changes to the privacy law, Lam said her government was only “targeting illegal doxxing and empowering the privacy commissioners to investigate and carry out operations”.

She added that the city’s privacy commission would be happy to meet tech industry representatives to deal with any anxieties they might have, but suggested her government was determined to press forward with fast-tracking the new changes.

“Of course, it would be ideal to relieve this anxiety when we make the legislation. But sometimes it needs to be demonstrated via implementation,” she said.

Lam went on to express dismay at some residents mourning the death of a 50-year-old who stabbed a policeman before killing himself on July 1, the anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule and the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary.

“For a long time, citizens have been exposed to wrong ideas, such as achieving justice through illegal means,” Lam told reporters, adding that national security risks stemmed not only from “public order” acts, but also from ideology.

Government departments “shouldn’t allow illegal ideas to filter through to the public through education, broadcasting, arts and culture, beautifying violence and clouding the conscience of the public,” Lam said.

“I also call on parents, principals, teachers, and even pastors to observe acts of teenagers around them. If some teens are found to be committing illegal acts, they must be reported.”

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