Pedestrians walk past a computer showing the log-in page for Facebook in Hong Kong
Facebook said it was acting to support the right of people to express themselves ‘without fear for their safety’ © AFP/Getty Images

Facebook, Google and Twitter have all said they will temporarily block Hong Kong’s authorities from accessing user data, after the semi-autonomous city threatened jail terms against companies that did not comply with a new Chinese national security law.

Facebook, which has a global process for government requests, on Monday said it was acting to support the right of people to express themselves “without fear for their safety”.

Google said it was reviewing the law, while Twitter said that it had “grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law”.

The Hong Kong government on Monday said the law, which was imposed last week, requires social media companies to take down content deemed illegal, cut individuals’ access to platforms and, if a warrant is granted, comply with reasonable decryption requests.

“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,” Facebook said in a statement. The decision also includes Facebook’s messaging app WhatsApp and Instagram.

A Google spokesperson said that it had “paused production on any new data requests from Hong Kong authorities” since the law took effect and would “continue to review the details of the new law”.

Twitter said that it paused all data requests last week.

“(O)ur teams are reviewing the law to assess its implications, particularly as some of the terms of the law are vague and without clear definition,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

The act of defiance from three of the US’s most prominent internet companies, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, is the latest example of escalating tensions between China and the US, a trade dispute in which the tech sector has become increasingly entangled.

The Hong Kong government on Monday said publishers, internet service providers and social media companies could face fines and jail terms if they did not comply with orders to take down material or co-operate with police requests. The government’s implementation rules did not specify whether the jail terms would apply to executives.

Under other Hong Kong regulations, directors can be held liable for offences committed by a corporation.

According to Facebook’s most recent transparency report, the US tech company received 384 government requests for data in Hong Kong last year across all three platforms, second only to 2018 when it recorded 386 requests, and came as the city was rocked by months of anti-government protests.

Unlike mainland citizens, Hong Kong residents had until recently freely used their social media accounts to voice opinions including protests against China’s influence over the city. Google, Facebook, Twitter and other big US tech companies similarly operate freely in the territory, unlike on the mainland, where they are blocked.

Daily newsletter

#techFT brings you news, comment and analysis on the big companies, technologies and issues shaping this fastest moving of sectors from specialists based around the world. Click here to get #techFT in your inbox.

WhatsApp messages are already end-to-end encrypted, meaning Facebook cannot read message contents. However, it could be asked to hand over other basic information including phone numbers. Other end-to-end encrypted apps have surged in popularity in the territory. The number of first-time users of encrypted messaging app Telegram in Hong Kong quadrupled last year, according to Sensor Tower data.

Beijing will struggle to convince tech companies to self-censor in Hong Kong as they do in China if they take a common stance against the new security law, said Charlie Smith of GreatFire, a censorship monitoring organisation.

“The Chinese authorities have in part been successful in convincing foreign tech companies to self-censor because they deal with them individually,” Mr Smith said. “It will be harder for Beijing to fight a tech collective in Hong Kong and will at least delay any action on their part.”

Separately, Telegram also said it would not process “any data requests related to its Hong Kong users” until an international consensus was reached on the political changes in the territory.

Online message platform Reddit, which counts China’s Tencent among its investors, said in a statement: “All legal requests from Hong Kong are bound by careful review for validity and with a special attention to human rights implications.”

In a follow-up statement, it said that it had not received any requests from Hong Kong and that its “policies on protecting user information are in no way influenced by our investors”.

Snap, another company that has received investment from Tencent, declined to comment on whether it will continue to process Hong Kong government requests or not.

Some encrypted apps have claimed they were targeted after being used to organise protests in the Chinese territory. The founder of Telegram said China was behind a huge hacking attack on its app last year.

But others warned that pushback from western tech companies could lead to a “complete blackout” of services in the region. WhatsApp has been largely blocked in China since 2017, as are other foreign apps and services including Google and Twitter.

“There is a good chance that this support could ultimately cause even more severe censorship,” said Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.

Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong, Yuan Yang in Beijing, Tim Bradshaw in London and Hannah Murphy in San Francisco

Get alerts on Hong Kong politics when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article