Google, Facebook and Twitter said on Monday that they would temporarily stop processing Hong Kong government requests for user data as the companies reviewed a sweeping national security law that has chilled political expression in the city.
The companies said they were still assessing the law, which has already been used to arrest people who have called for Hong Kong independence. Facebook said its review would include human rights considerations.
The surprising consensus from the rival American internet giants, which each used similar language in each statement, was a rare public questioning of Chinese policy. It was also a stark illustration of the deep quandaries the companies face with the sweeping, punitive law.
TikTok went even further than the American companies on Monday, saying it would withdraw its app from stores in Hong Kong and make the app inoperable to users there within a few days.
The video app is owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance but is not available in mainland China. TikTok has said that managers outside China call the shots on key aspects of its business, including rules about content.
Late Monday, Hong Kong released new rules that give the police powers to take down internet posts and punish internet companies that do not comply with data requests. The new rules explicitly give the authorities the ability to jail employees at internet companies if the firms do not comply with requests for user data. Because the new rules apply across the world, they open up the prospect of tech companies having to choose between releasing data on people writing from places like the United States or face a six-month jail sentence for an employee.
The American companies did not say whether they would ultimately decide to cooperate with parts of the law, just that they had temporarily stopped fielding government requests as they decided. What they decide and the ensuing legal challenges from Hong Kong’s government will most likely chart a course for the future of internet freedoms in the city, where the web has not been tightly censored as it has in mainland China. Many fear the law could lead to suffocating new controls like those in China, where Facebook, Twitter and Google are all blocked.
The companies have much to lose. Despite the blocks, Google, Facebook and Twitter have large advertising businesses in the country.
“We are pausing the review of government requests for user data from Hong Kong pending further assessment of the National Security Law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts,” Facebook wrote in a statement.
“We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions,” the statement added. The suspension of data reviews also applies to the messaging app WhatsApp, the company said.
On Monday, a Google spokesman said the company had paused processing data requests from the Hong Kong authorities on Wednesday, and Twitter said it had also stopped processing the requests. Telegram, a messaging app popular with Hong Kong’s protesters, said on Sunday that it would suspend the provision of user data until a consensus was reached on the new law. Telegram has offices in the Middle East and Europe.
Some people in Hong Kong reported being unable to download the TikTok app on Tuesday.
The national security law, adopted in part to quash the antigovernment demonstrations that have smoldered in Hong Kong for more than a year, was introduced last week on the anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese control. Though officials insist that the sweeping and punitive new rules will affect only a small number of offenders, many worry that it will be used to widely curb dissent in Hong Kong, which, unlike mainland China, continues to have an array of civil liberties.
Riva Sciuto, a Google spokeswoman, said, “Last Wednesday, when the law took effect, we paused production on any new data requests from Hong Kong authorities, and we’ll continue to review the details of the new law.”
The law has already cast a pall over the city’s internet. Seeking safer ways to communicate, legions have downloaded the encrypted messaging app Signal, pushing it to the top of the list of app store downloads. Others, fearing prosecution for speech crimes, have deleted online posts, likes and even whole accounts.
The new rules announced by Hong Kong on Monday made clearer how the law would apply to online discussion.
The government said that if an internet company failed to comply with a court order to turn over data in cases related to national security, it could be fined almost $13,000 and an employee could face six months in prison. If a person is ordered to remove a post and he or she refuses, that person can face a jail sentence of one year. A separate provision also gave the police wide powers to order the deletion of internet posts that threaten national security. How widely the rules will be enforced remains unclear.
The rules leave internet giants like Facebook in a tricky place. The companies regularly provide user data to local law enforcement, yet the vaguely written national security law has criminalized certain types of political speech and branded some forms of vandalism terror crimes.
Going along with the law may be unpopular in the United States, where it has received bipartisan condemnation. Yet, standing up against it could raise the ire of Beijing, hurt companies’ bottom lines and put local employees at risk.
Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed reporting from Oakland, Calif.; Mike Isaac from San Francisco; and Raymond Zhong from Taipei, Taiwan.