HONG KONG – Hong Kong police have forced one of the city’s best-known activist groups to remove its online presence, in the latest sign of how officials can use a powerful national security law to restrict speech in online and impose mainland China-style internet censorship. .
The group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of China’s Democratic Patriotic Movements, has for decades organized annual vigils to commemorate the 1989 government massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. Even when the Chinese central government tried to erase the memory of the massacre from the mainland, the alliance operated freely in Hong Kong. that, as a former British colony, it was promised civil liberties absent in the rest of China.
The group’s social media pages openly criticized the government. Its “About” section on Facebook, for example, stated that it was dedicated to “fighting for democracy, freedom and human rights” in China.
But the security law, which the central government imposed in Hong Kong last year to quell months of pro-democracy protests, empowers officials to order the removal of online content deemed to endanger national security. .
In a Facebook post on Thursday, the alliance said police had invoked the law and ordered it to remove “designated electronic content” and, in response, would remove its website, Facebook page and other social media accounts that night.
In a statement, the police declined to comment on specific cases, but cited the powers granted by the security law and noted that they “only applied” in cases that could threaten national security.
“The public can continue to use the Internet legally and will not be affected,” the statement read.
It was not the first time that the Hong Kong police had used the law to curb the flow of information online that was previously free. In January, authorities appeared to temporarily cut off access to a website that disclosed private information about police officers and other government supporters, a practice known as doxxing.
In May, the police successfully asked Wix, an Israeli website hosting company, to remove a site built by a group of exiled pro-democracy activists. Wix then apologized and changed course.
Nor was it the first effort by the authorities to repress the alliance, which has become one of the most prominent targets under the law. For the past two years, the government has prohibited the group from organizing its annual vigil. Many of its leaders have been arrested or jailed, and some of them charged with subversion under the security law. Police have also demanded details about the group’s funding and membership.
Still, the forced removal by the alliance marked the highest-profile case yet of police cracking down on expression online. As much of Hong Kong society has transformed to look more like the mainland, some fear that the city’s digital spaces are too. On the mainland, Facebook, Twitter, and many Western media outlets are blocked, and an army of censors works around the clock to remove any sensitive content.
Critics have also pointed to the Hong Kong government’s plans to enact what it calls anti-doxxing bill, although experts have called the language too broad and open to abuse. The officials have he also proposed targeting “fake news,“What many say could be used to further silence critical voices of the government.
On Thursday, the city’s largest pro-Beijing political party proposed to follow the lead of the central government by enacting stricter controls on video games, including enacting time limits for minors, real-name registration, and a ban. of pornographic content.
“I think the hunting season for the open internet is starting,” said Lokman Tsui, a member of Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity watchdog based in Hong Kong. “They were going after the media, after educational institutions, unions. But now it seems like it’s time to ‘fix the Internet.’
In particular, analysts noted that the order directed at the alliance was the first known instance in which police used security law to force a group to remove posts, rather than turn to service providers like Wix.
The security law allows any scenario. But major internet companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have voiced alarm over the security law and have pledged, at least temporarily, to stop complying with the Hong Kong government’s requests for user data. Some even threatened to withdraw from the city on concerns that the planned anti-doxxing law would hold company employees accountable for user actions, even though the government said those concerns were unjustified.
By targeting users, the police could circumvent the platforms, said Glacier Kwong, a Hong Kong digital rights activist now in Germany. complete a doctorate in data protection.
“Most of the online service providers are either large US-based companies or large foreign-based companies,” Ms Kwong said. “But individual civil society groups or individuals do not have the power to compete against the enormous dominance of national security law.”
Ms Kwong said it was unlikely in the short term that Hong Kong would erect such a digital firewall on the mainland, blocking sites like Facebook outright. Authorities were still interested in presenting an open front to the world, he said. But he said he expected more removal requests from the police.
“They found it to be useful against one of the largest groups in Hong Kong, so of course they will try to use it in other groups to be able to achieve a very clean Internet,” he said.
The security law has already left Hong Kong’s digital spaces, which during the 2019 protests became raucous forums to organize, animate and criticize the government, significantly more naked than before. In the weeks after the law was implemented, social media users were quick to remove critical posts and pro-democracy media removed opinion columns.
Radio Television Hong Kong, a government broadcaster once known for its fiercely independent reporting, removed from YouTube shows for over a year. When Apple Daily, the city’s leading pro-democracy newspaper, closed in June under government pressure, it deleted its entire online archive.
The alliance, before closing its Facebook page, opened a new one. But it is unclear to what extent the group, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment, will replicate its previous online presence. So far, the page contains only one post, which explains the police order to remove the old profile.
The “About” section of the page is empty.
Joy dong contributed to the research