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Technology

Hong Kong leader dismisses Big Tech privacy law fears

  • The broad wording of the proposed legislation has spooked major tech companies who fear they could be held liable and their employees prosecuted for users' content
06 Jul 2021

HONG KONG: Hong Kong's leader on Tuesday brushed off a warning by major tech companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter that they may quit the financial hub if authorities push ahead with a new privacy law.

City authorities have unveiled plans to pass a new law targeting "doxxing" -- the act of publishing someone's private details online so they can be harassed by others.

But the broad wording of the proposed legislation has spooked major tech companies who fear they could be held liable and their employees prosecuted for users' content.

They detailed their concerns in a letter sent to Hong Kong's government by the Asia Internet Coalition which includes tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Apple.

"Introducing sanctions aimed at individuals is not aligned with global norms and trends," the letter, which was dated 25 June but made public this week, warned.

"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," it added.

Asked about the warning on Tuesday, the city's chief executive Carrie Lam dismissed those concerns.

"We are targeting illegal doxxing and empowering the privacy commissioners to investigate and carry out operations, that's it," she told reporters.

Lam likened the new data privacy powers to a national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year to stamp out dissent after huge and often violent democracy protests in 2019.

Lam said that security law had been "slandered and defamed".

"It's the same case for the privacy law," she concluded.

Tech jitters

Lam added that the city's privacy commission would be happy to meet with tech industry representatives to deal with any anxieties they might have.

But she suggested that her government was determined to press ahead with fast-tracking the new legislation.

"Of course, it would be ideal to relieve this anxiety when we make the legislation. But sometimes it needs to be demonstrated via implementation," she said.

Authoritarian China monitors and strictly controls the internet but semi-autonomous Hong Kong has fewer restrictions and markets itself as a regional tech centre.

Yet international technology firms have been increasingly rattled by Beijing's campaign to make the city more like the mainland, including its push to dismantle the finance hub's popular democracy movement.

The national security law gave police new powers, including the ability to issue internet takedown notices as well as conduct investigations and freeze the assets of any company deemed a threat to China.

Soon after the law came in, many American and other tech firms announced they would suspend processing requests from Hong Kong's law enforcement agencies.

Plans to build an undersea data cable between the United States and Hong Kong were also scrapped -- and some major international firms began moving crucial data off any servers based in the city.

'Disproportionate'

Doxxing become an issue during the political unrest of 2019.

Democracy supporters used it to post private details about police, judges and officials. Beijing loyalists also doxxed pro-democracy supporters.

In its letter, the Asia Internet Coalition said it was opposed to doxxing and supported finding ways to tackle the issue.

But it warned the legislation's current vague wording could curtail "innocent acts of sharing information online" and place tech firms at risk of prosecution for what users write.

It described the government's current data privacy plan as a "completely disproportionate and unnecessary response".

China says its new national security powers and crackdown in Hong Kong are needed to return stability to the finance hub, after months of sometimes violent pro-democracy rallies in 2019.

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