Google, Facebook and other tech companies threaten to quit Hong Kong over privacy law

Tech giants including Google, Facebook, and Twitter could stop offering services to Hong Kong if the city moves forward with laws to impose penalties on users who publicly release identifying information about individual or organisations,an Asian industry group has warned.

The Asia Internet Coalition, which counts the three major companies as well as Apple Inc and LinkedIn as members, wrote to Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner to warn that privacy laws which could see undefined “severe sanctions” against individuals for so-called doxing were “not aligned with global norms and trends”.

“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,” the letter said.

Hong Kong saw an unprecedented wave of doxing – the malicious spread of private information online – during the mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. Personal details were released by parties on both sides, with police, politicians, journalists and activists targeted, as well as their families.

ong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said on Tuesday that the proposed law would target only “illegal” doxing, and said the privacy commissioner would be happy to meet tech companies if they had concerns.

“There is wide support that doxing should be legislated against,” Lam said. “The amendment exercise is to address the issue of doxing. The privacy commissioner is empowered to take action and carry out investigation – that’s it.”

Lam said all new legislation attracted concern but claimed fears expressed about the impact of the national security law had not been shown not to eventuate. The security law, introduced in 2020, has been widely and internationally condemned, but Hong Kong authorities maintain it has brought stability to the city.

Lam said that security law had been “slandered and defamed”. “It’s the same case for the privacy law,” she concluded.

The letter, signed by AIC managing director, Jeff Paine, said the language of the legislation would subject intermediaries and local subsidiaries to criminal investigations and prosecution for doxing offences, including for not removing material from platforms.

“[This] is a completely disproportionate and unnecessary response to doxing, given that intermediaries are neutral platforms with no editorial control over the doxing posts, and are not the persons publishing personal data,” it said.

“In reality, most intermediaries already have notice and takedown regimes in place to deal with doxing content and such requests would be responded to without undue delay.”

The letter, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, said the AIC agreed doxing was a serious concern, and it appreciated “the importance of privacy and the protection of personal information”. However, it also said any anti-doxing legislation “can have the effect of curtailing free expression, [and] must be built upon principles of necessity and proportionality”.

 letter outlined key concerns with the legislation, including its granting of regionally unprecedented police-level powers to a statutory agency, and a lack of a specific definition for acts of doxing.

“This gives rise to legitimate concerns that ‘doxing’ in the proposed amendments could have an overly broad interpretation such that even innocent acts of sharing of information online could be deemed unlawful,” it said, adding this could include legitimate acts such as media reporting.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while Twitter referred questions to the AIC. Google declined to comment.

A sweeping crackdown on opposition and dissent by Hong Kong authorities accelerated with the implementation of the Beijing-designed national security law last year. More than 10,000 people have been arrested in relation to the protests, and at least 128, including journalists and politicians, in relation to new national security offences. The Hong Kong government has rejected international criticism of its crackdown, and instead vowed to further strengthen laws.

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