Facebook, Google, Twitter Threaten to Leave Hong Kong Over Doxing Law

A man about to open social media apps.

An Asian industry group including Facebook, Google, and Twitter has threatened to abandon Hong Kong over a newly proposed privacy law. Hong Kong is one of the last areas controlled by mainland China’s Communist Party where citizens can freely use international social media apps.

Hong Kong government has shrugged off the warning, saying the law only focuses on penalizing illegal doxing — the malicious act of revealing private details of a person’s life online without their consent.

Hong Kong Pushes for Changes to Privacy Laws

In May, the Hong Kong government proposed an amendment to the city’s privacy law, making doxing a criminal offense. Any person who posts the personal information of another individual — with the intention of harassing, intimidating, or causing psychological distress to them or their family members — could face up to five years in prison and a fine of HK$1 million (about $129,000).

The Hong Kong government saw an “unprecedented wave of doxing” during anti-government protests in 2019, the Guardian reports. Both sides were subjected to the public release of sensitive personal data — protesters, police officers, politicians, and journalists all became targets. Some reported that their home addresses, children’s schools, phone numbers, and other personal information were made public.

In a letter to Hong Kong’s privacy authority, tech companies expressed concerns that the law’s descriptions of criminal doxing are too vague. Tech companies also fear being held liable for any doxing that might occur on their platforms or having their employees roped into criminal investigations.

Big Tech Comes Out Against New Law

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — which includes Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, and LinkedIn as members — said the proposed amendment could lead to “severe sanctions” for individuals. Though exact sanctions weren’t mentioned, leaving Hong Kong would be the only way for these tech juggernauts to steer clear of them.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a June 25 letter from the group to Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner read: “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.”

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam dismissed the tech coalition’s fears on Tuesday. The proposed amendment only targets “illegal” doxing activities, she said. Though the Hong Kong government said it would meet with the tech coalition to quell its concerns, it will continue to push the law through.

The Lastest in Beijing-backed Policies

In theory, an anti-doxing law should be championed as progress toward privacy protection. But Beijing’s reputation of curtailing freedom of speech and targeting opponents of the Chinese Communist Party has many critics worried for Hong Kong’s future.

In a legislative move that many have called the “end of semi-autonomous” Hong Kong, Beijing bypassed the city’s legislature and passed the National Security Law in June of 2020. This was in response to massive protests of a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China for criminal punishment.

The order sought to effectively end anti-government protests by punishing pro-democracy activists and imposing new security laws governing Hong Kong. Critics have said the descriptions of criminal offenses — much like the descriptions of the doxing law — are too broad.

Opponents to the National Security Law claim it gives too vague descriptions for crimes like terrorism, colluding with foreign forces and secession. This has stoked fears that any Hong Kong protestor could be jailed and punished for these crimes in mainland China. Likewise, if the doxing law is too vague, someone could be charged for posting a picture that a government official deemed too personal.

Tech journalist
Taylor is a tech writer and online journalist with a special interest in cybersecurity and online privacy. He’s covered everything from sports and crime, to explosive startups, AI, cybercrime, FinTech, and cryptocurrency. For VPNOverview.com he follows news and developments in online privacy, cybersecurity, and internet freedom.