July 7, 2020 / 10:25 AM / a month ago

In Hong Kong national security law, echoes of China's own cyber crackdown

BEIJING (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s new National Security Law will shake up digital surveillance in the city, with strict new company compliance measures that echo the mainland’s years-long crackdown on anti-government content.

Legislators attend a meeting to debate national security law at Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, China July 7, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Foreign tech companies have balked at the laws, with Facebook, Twitter and Google among those saying they would suspend requests for data pending clarification of what is required.

Experts on Chinese internet laws say the legislation hews closely to mainland policies on national security in cyberspace, giving hints as to what is in store for a city long accustomed to vast digital privacy rights.

The mainland laws, which in some cases share similar wording to Hong Kong’s, have led to sweeping restrictions since 2013 and a sharp rise in convictions for crimes in cyberspace.

“To indigenise Hong Kong cyberspace, you would have to do in a very short period of time, and in a very conflictual environment, what the Chinese government was able to do in the mainland over years,” said Rogier Creemers of Leiden University in the Netherlands, an expert on data and internet laws in China.

The Hong Kong law includes expanded powers that sidestep courts and ramp up covert surveillance funding for intelligence gathering, and allows technical personnel outside Hong Kong to be involved.

Hong Kong legal experts say the expanded local police powers over national security override an entrenched system of judicial and government supervision of covert surveillance – a regime built up over years of court challenges.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a news conference on Tuesday that cases involving mainland agents would be “rare”.

“Ultimately, time and facts will tell that this law will not undermine human rights and freedoms,” she said

In details released late on Monday, authorities may require companies to remove online content based on “reasonable grounds to suspect” it violates national security laws. Service providers that fail to comply face jail terms and a $100,000 fine.

The stipulation is reminiscent of mainland China’s 2017 cyber law, which says operators must “provide technical support and assistance” to authorities seeking to remove or review content based on national security grounds.

MANDATORY COMPLIANCE

Already, advocates for tech companies say there may be no choice but to comply.  

“If you want to be in Hong Kong, you have to comply with the National Security Law, then you have to cooperate with the Hong Kong police. Very simple, very straightforward,” said Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of Hong Kong’s Information Technology Federation, a trade association that mainly represents local companies.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has built one of the world’s most advanced and punitive digital surveillance legal frameworks.

Both the Hong Kong and Chinese laws sidestep court warrants and call for the expansion of publicity in schools, media and government, promoting national unity.

Both include punishments for people “suspected” of inciting hatred against the central government, without elaboration.

“Vagueness is a governing tactic,” said Creemers, who added that strict punishments which acted as a deterrent were core to the effectiveness of China’s laws.

EFFECTIVE IMPLEMENTATION

On the mainland, the cyber laws have been largely successful at quashing what it deems anti-government content.

In 2014, when Beijing expanded a criminal offence of “picking quarrels and causing trouble” to include online activity, related convictions increased five-fold, according to a tally on official Chinese courts site, China Judgements Online.

Well-known cases targeted artists, rights lawyers and bloggers.

The Hong Kong and mainland laws also have key differences.

Mainland companies and internet service providers must store personal data logs for as long as five years, and create self-censorship mechanisms, while all internet users must be registered to a national ID; such specific restrictions haven’t been laid out in Hong Kong.

“We still don’t have case law. So we’ll have to see what happens,” Fong said. “But things are going much faster than we expected.”

Reporting by Cate Cadell. Additional reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong.; Editing by Tony Munroe and Gerry Doyle

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