How Hong Kong’s new security law is already throttling its open Internet

July 7, 2020, 10:26 AM UTC

Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter, Signal, Zoom, Microsoft, and Telegram all announced this week that they will temporarily stop responding to Hong Kong government requests for information on users in the city amid Beijing’s new national security law. Apple, meanwhile, is still “assessing” the law and will await guidance from the U.S. government. Chinese-owned TikTok has decided to pull out of the Hong Kong market altogether.

Beijing implemented the new national security law in Hong Kong on June 30. It’s aimed at preventing and punishing acts that jeopardize China’s national security, namely secession, terrorism, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces. The Tuesday announcements from foreign tech firms followed the Monday introduction of Hong Kong’s new rules outlining Article 43 of the law; they give Hong Kong police sweeping power over Hong Kong’s Internet.

The rules say that all online publishing platforms in Hong Kong, whether locally based or foreign-owned, must provide data, remove content, or restrict access to users upon police request. What’s more, any “foreign agent” or service provider that fails to comply with police could face a fine of nearly $13,000 and six months of imprisonment.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam did not answer a direct question about foreign tech firms’ refusal to share data with the Hong Kong government but reiterated her determination to enforce the law.

“For Internet service providers and other organizations, they may be asked to remove information or messages online. There is this power,” Lam said.

Such statements may do little to assure compliance by foreign tech firms. For now, they are taking a stand against the apparent erosion of Internet freedoms in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Holds News Conference
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, is seen on smartphone screens during a news conference in Hong Kong on June 30, 2020. This week she dodged questions about tech giants’ refusal to cooperate with government data requests.
Lam Yik—Bloomberg/Getty Images

“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,” Facebook said in a statement. Its stance and those taken by other tech giants seem to be proactive and not in response to new government requests for user information.

The messaging app Telegram has said that it will wait for an international consensus to emerge over Hong Kong’s political changes. Facebook said it will consult international human rights experts before moving forward. A Twitter spokesperson told Fortune that it is reviewing the law to assess its implications, particularly because “some of the terms of the law are vague and without clear definition.”

Skepticism among foreign tech firms about Beijing’s new legislation in Hong Kong reflects the fears long harbored by some users in the region that are now being realized: that Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong will throttle the unfettered Internet that has shaped the city’s cultural and business landscapes.

A VPN boom

Hong Kong’s relative autonomy from China since Britain’s 1997 handover has meant city residents have never been subject to China’s Great Firewall, which blocks access to websites like Google, Facebook, and the New York Times and employs trackers that monitor Internet users and censor sensitive posts. Hong Kong’s online experience more closely mirrored that of the U.S. than Shenzhen, the Chinese city it borders, a trait that endeared Hong Kong to business professionals, students, and academics alike.

The anti-government protest movement in the summer of 2019 provided the first inklings that Hong Kong’s Internet freedoms were under threat. Protesters took steps to protect their online data, switching to encrypted messaging apps like Signal and Telegram to organize protests and hide their identities from authorities.

The push toward online privacy spiked this year in late May, after China introduced the new national security legislation for Hong Kong. At the time, virtual private networks (VPNs), which mask a user’s online activity, reported massive upswings in demand in Hong Kong.

People walk on a pedestrian bridge near Hong Kong Polytechnic University on June 6, 2020. The city’s history of an unfettered Internet has endeared it to business, academia, and the arts.

On May 26, a Hong Kong protester told Fortune that he downloaded a VPN hours after Beijing announced the new law because he was “really afraid that the [Chinese Communist Party] will get my personal information.” 

Now that the law is in effect, VPN demand in Hong Kong remains high.

Top10VPN, a research firm based in London that tracks global VPN use, says that the day before the national security legislation went into effect, searches for VPNs in Hong Kong surged by 321% in comparison to the rest of June.

“The criminalization of ‘secession’ and ‘subversion of state power’ has led many to believe that speaking out online may be grounds for arrest,” said Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at TOP10VPN. “It appears only a matter of time before the mainland’s strict digital censorship and constant surveillance is also felt in Hong Kong.”

At a press conference on Friday, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not directly address concerns about diminished online freedoms but said the law “will help ensure Hong Kong’s lasting security, stability, and prosperity, [and] safeguard residents’ lawful rights and freedoms.”

Social media exodus

In the lead-up to the law’s implementation, there also were signs that Hong Kong’s Internet users were starting to scrub their online identities.

The exodus was perhaps most pronounced on Twitter, a platform that gained popularity in Hong Kong last year during the anti-government protest movement as activists sought to reach a more global audience. The company declined to comment on whether it’s seen a drop in users in Hong Kong recently. But public sign-offs and shuttered accounts from some of Hong Kong’s top pro-democracy figures point to a meaningful migration off the platform.

On June 30, a Twitter user going by the name mono posted a goodbye to another user who often shared Hong Kong protest artwork. Other users noted how Hong Kong activists appeared to be leaving the platform en masse.

“The Exodus of Hong Kong Twitter accounts is honestly depressing to behold,” wrote Jan Renders on Twitter, a Ph.D. candidate in China.

Users seemed to leave other major U.S. social media platforms too. In a video post on May 22, Hong Kong actor and activist Wong He demonstrated how to delete a Facebook account. The video has garnered over 170,000 views. On Instagram, at least one prominent activist organization, a law group at Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College, announced it would delete its account in light of the new law.

Facebook declined Fortune’s request for comment on the potential drop-off in users on Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns.

Yet there remain online spaces where Hong Kongers continue to share pro-protest content. LIHKG, an independent Reddit-like online messaging board that became popular among protesters in 2019, is still active and full of posts expressing anti-government criticisms.

Beijing’s new Internet restrictions for Hong Kong, enforced just seven days ago, are still taking shape. But already there’s proof that Beijing is remaking Hong Kong’s online experience to reflect that of the mainland, where overseas tech giants are neutralized and dissenting content is hard to access, having been relegated to farther-flung corners of the Internet.