WhatsApp and Telegram won’t give Hong Kong user data to Chinese authorities in response to ‘easily abused’ security law

July 6, 2020, 5:45 PM UTC

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Both Facebook-owned WhatsApp and its messaging competitor Telegram have announced that they will cease complying with requests for data on users in Hong Kong from Chinese authorities. The twin announcements follow the June 30 passage of a sweeping new security law in Hong Kong that has been widely decried by human rights agencies, and which has been seen internationally as marking the end of Hong Kong’s special status as a jurisdiction with greater political freedom within China.

“Facebook’s WhatsApp and Telegram are doing the right thing,” Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, told Fortune. Provisions of the new national security law, she said, “are very broad and can be easily abused by authorities to punish people for peacefully expressing critical views of the Chinese or Hong Kong government. By suspending reviewing requests for user data, the companies are fulfilling their commitments to upholding the right to privacy and freedom of expression.”

Neither decision appears to be permanent. In a statement to Hong Kong Free Press on Sunday, a Telegram spokesperson said that “Telegram does not intend to process any data requests related to its Hong Kong users until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city.”

Facebook, meanwhile, announced Monday morning that WhatsApp is “pausing” such reviews “pending further assessment of the impact of the national security law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with human rights experts.”

Signal, a competing messaging app that is fully encrypted, took the opportunity to state on Twitter that “we never started turning over user data to HK police. Also, we don’t have user data to turn over.”

Facebook’s decision has minimal broader business risk. Facebook itself has been prohibited in China, and blocked by government firewalls, since 2009, and WhatsApp is also officially unavailable on the mainland. But experts say the announcements presage more difficult decisions to be made by other tech companies in the coming days and weeks.

“International firms that have operated comfortably in Hong Kong for years are now facing a dramatically changed reality,” Julian Gewirtz, a China expert and research fellow at Harvard, told Fortune. “The Chinese leadership’s brazen move is forcing tech companies to reassess whether they can continue to responsibly offer their products and services in Hong Kong. Many may find that the answer is no.”

WhatsApp has been reported to play a key role in organizing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as early as 2014. Its role remained prominent in the latest and most violent round of protests beginning in 2019.

Those protests came largely in reaction to previous restrictive legislation proposed by Beijing, which would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects—including political dissidents—to courts on the Chinese mainland. That bill was later officially retracted.

The latest bill carves out a swath of new offenses in Hong Kong that critics say effectively end freedom of speech in the former British colonial territory. Those offenses include political subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. The media are also restricted from observing legal cases involving “state secrets” or “public order.” Under the new law, state authorities will strengthen “supervision and regulation” of the press.

These categories are so broadly defined in the new law that experts say it provides no clear guidelines for the media or public speech in Hong Kong, eroding Hong Kong’s traditional common law framework. The international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders described the law as “grotesque.”

As reported by Hong Kong Free Press, opposition groups disbanded, and activists fled overseas in response to the law. In the U.S., legislators have passed tough sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the law, as well as Chinese banks and police units.

President Donald Trump, who has frequently expressed solidarity with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and staked much of his political reputation on a trade deal with China, has not yet signed the sanctions into law.

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