A coalition of internet giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, wrote to authorities in Hong Kong denouncing new anti-doxing measures. The practice of releasing personal information about an individual over the Internet has exploded in Hong Kong, and the government is suspected of using it as a pretext to tighten censorship.
Hong Kong deprived of Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn or even Apple’s services? It is all the gratin of the Gafa who threaten to withdraw from the semi-autonomous territory because of a reform of the law on the protection of private data, reported the Wall Street Journal, Monday (July 5th).
These American tech giants fear the implementation in Hong Kong of new measures to fight “doxing” – the practice of putting personal information about individuals online. Grouped within the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), they set out their grievances in a letter sent at the end of June to local authorities and made public on Monday.
Doxing, a phenomenon that has exploded since 2019
This tech world is afraid of contributing to a new turn of the freedoms screw of the pro-Beijing government, a year after the introduction of the very controversial law on national security.
The measures, unveiled at the end of May in a bill, would indeed oblige the major platforms to reduce to digital silence any person found guilty of “doxing” by the Office of the Privacy and Personal Data Protection Commissioner.
Otherwise, the Hong Kong employees of Facebook, Google or Twitter could be prosecuted and sentenced to terms of up to five years in prison. “The only way to avoid these sanctions would be for technology platforms to stop offering their services in Hong Kong”, summarizes the letter from AIC.
This coalition also suggests that the “legitimate fight against doxing” serves as a pretext to continue to curtail freedom of expression in the former British colony that Beijing is increasingly trying to bring to its feet.
Doxing has become an issue taken very seriously by authorities since the 2019 protests against Carrie Lam’s government. Everyone was then indulged in it, recalls the British daily The Guardian. Power supporters used social media to post personal information about the leaders of the pro-democracy movement. Protesters did the same for police officers filmed or photographed using force during rallies.
The number of sites and groups on messengers like Telegram devoted to “doxing” had even exploded after the police officers’ decision to no longer wear their identification badges from June 2019. It had become a “weapon to document l ‘escalation of police violence,’ recalls the New York Times.
“Between June 2019 and May 2021, more than 5,700 cases of ‘doxing’ were transmitted to the Office of the Privacy and Personal Data Protection Commissioner”, underline the authors of the bill criticized by the American Internet giants. Nearly 1,500 cases have given rise to police investigations, and 17 people have been arrested for illegally publishing the personal data of police officers or their immediate families, the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post said.
A pretext for ever more censorship?
It is this low number of arrests that pushed the authorities to work on hardening existing laws. The new bill provides for the creation of two offenses. The first would be characterized when personal data is published without the authorization of the victim with the aim of threatening, intimidating or harassing him. The second concerns cases of “doxxing” which result in “psychological damage” to the victims.
For the detractors of this reform project, the outlines of these offenses are too vague. “Psychological damage cannot be defined objectively and the concept leaves too much room for discretion,” regrets, for example, the Asian Coalition of Internet Platforms.
More generally, there is no definition accepted by all of the constituent elements of “doxing”, and the proposed measures “could make it possible to prohibit the legitimate or innocent publication of information on individuals”, fears the Hong Kong Free site Press. This reform would risk, according to the site, to introduce a new reason for censorship making it possible to further limit what is allowed to be said online about Hong Kong politicians. “These new rules can potentially make it possible to ban the posting of any photo of a person on the Internet on the pretext that it allows someone to be identified without their consent,” summarizes the Wall Street Journal.
Finally, the proposed measures would also transform the role of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. “He could henceforth carry out his own criminal investigations and initiate legal proceedings”, underlines the law firm Pinson Mason, which analyzed this reform project. An authority whose role was above all to protect online privacy would thus become a new police tool.
The Hong Kong government has tried to allay the concerns of the Internet giants. The proposed reform would “have no impact on freedom of expression which is protected by Hong Kong’s basic law,” the authorities said in a statement released Tuesday, July 6.
The head of government, Carrie Lam, admitted that “the introduction of these amendments to the law on the protection of private life raised questions similar to the fears which had followed the debates around the law on national security”. But, for her, in the end these changes will prove to be just as positive as with the law on national security. Not sure if this is likely to reassure the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong …