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In Hong Kong, a proxy battle over Internet freedom begins

As Hong Kong grapples with a draconian new security law, the tiny territory is emerging as the front line in a global fight between the United States and China over censorship, surveillance, and the future of the Internet.

Hong Kong has long been a bastion of online freedom on the digital border of China’s tightly managed Internet, but its status changed radically in just a week. The new law mandates police censorship and covert digital surveillance, rules that can be applied to online speech across the world.

Now, the Hong Kong government is crafting Web controls to appease the most prolific censor on the planet, the Chinese Communist Party. And the changes threaten to further inflame tensions between China and the United States, in which technology itself has become a means by which the two economic superpowers seek to spread influence and undercut each other.

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Caught in the middle are the city’s 7 million residents, online records of rollicking political debate — some of which may now be illegal — and the world’s largest Internet companies, which host, and by extension guard, that data.

A standoff is already brewing. Many Big Tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Zoom, and LinkedIn, have said in the past two days that they would temporarily stop complying with requests for user data from Hong Kong authorities. The Hong Kong government, in turn, has made it clear that the penalty for noncompliance with the law could include jail time for company employees.

TikTok, which despite being owned by the Chinese Internet giant ByteDance has its eye on the US market, went even further than its American rivals. The video app said late Monday it would withdraw from stores in Hong Kong and make it inoperable to users there within a few days. The company has said that managers outside China call the shots on key aspects of its business, including rules about data.

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Based on the law, Hong Kong authorities can dictate the way people around the world talk about the city’s contested politics. A Facebook employee could potentially be arrested in Hong Kong if the company failed to hand over user data on someone based in the United States who Chinese authorities deemed a threat to national security.

“If Facebook refuses to give national security data, its service may be terminated in Hong Kong, and it will lose access to the Hong Kong market,” said Glacier Kwong of Keyboard Frontline, a nongovernmental organization that monitors digital rights in Hong Kong.

While it is not clear how widely Hong Kong’s government will enforce the law, the looming legal fights could determine whether the city falls behind China’s digital Iron Curtain or becomes a hybrid where online speech and communications are selectively policed.

Though US Internet companies still earn billions of dollars in Chinese ad revenue, a decision to go along with the Hong Kong rules would risk the ire of Washington, where there has been bipartisan condemnation of the security law. New restrictions on American businesses could also trigger retaliation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the Trump administration was considering blocking some Chinese apps, which he has called a threat to national security.

A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Zhao Lijian, defended the law at a news conference Tuesday, saying that it would make a more “stable and harmonious” Hong Kong.

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Google’s experience over the past year shows the fraught position of the largest US Internet companies. As Hong Kong police struggled to contain protests across the city in 2019, they turned to Internet companies for help. Overall data requests and orders from police to remove content more than doubled in the second half of 2019 from the first half to over 7,000 requests, according to a pro-democracy lawmaker, Charles Mok.

Hong Kong police asked Google to take down a number of posts, including a confidential police manual that had leaked online, a YouTube video from the hacking group Anonymous supporting the protests, and links to a website that let the public look up personal details about police officers, said a company report. In each case, Google said no.

The new law could punish the company with fines, equipment seizures, and arrests if it again declines such requests. It also would allow police to seize equipment from companies that host such content.

“We see the trend. It’s not just that they’re making more requests, it’s the growing power in the hands of the authorities to do this arbitrarily,” Mok said, adding that “some of the local smaller platforms will be worried about the legal consequences and they may comply” with government requests.