Hong Kong

How China's Clamp Down on Hong Kong Could Affect the Global Internet

Will tech companies resist orders to cooperate with demands for information to root out dissidents?

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The Western satellite of Hong Kong had a great run. Two decades resisting the authority of an empowered and modern Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is nothing to sneeze at. But with last month's passing of the National Security Law (NSL), which aims to clamp down on the raucous anti-CCP protests that have recently gripped the island, Hong Kong's unprecedented experiment in pseudo-sovereign liberalism looks to be coming to an end.

This law has already threatened the prized freedoms to which dissident Hong Kongers are accustomed. With the NSL also comes an uncertain future for both individual technology companies and the landscape of the global internet.

The law grants authorities with sweeping powers to root out what they consider "secession, terrorist activities, subversion, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements"—no new feat for a government. At the same time, the NSL adopts the language of Western governments with promises to protect "human rights" including the "freedoms of speech, of the press, of publication, of association, of assembly, of procession, and of demonstration."

That is, unless those activities are deemed to be actually illegal by a newly created "Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region" that is supervised by the Mainland government. Should a would-be freedom fighter be suspected as a secretive terrorist under the system the Committee creates, they will be tried in a special court and subject to penalties up to life imprisonment.

This de facto legal crusade against any discussion of Hong Kong independence or CCP shortcomings creates problems for U.S. tech companies operating in the region. Many U.S. companies only partially operate on the mainland, and some of them are basically shut out. Having offices in Hong Kong lets them have a footprint in China without being openly subject to CCP rule (and therefore the public criticism in the West that would follow).

That is now changing with the NSL. China is exerting more direct control of Hong Kong through the Committee for Safeguarding National Security and another new body called the "Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," which is totally under the control of the mainland and not subject to Hong Kong jurisdiction at all. As the lines between the CCP and Hong Kong governance become blurrier, it becomes harder to claim you do not collaborate with or enable foreign governments that operate ethnic concentration camps.

And the NSL asks for much collaboration. Article 43 of the NSL empowers Hong Kong police with authorities to investigate suspected subversion. Specifically, law enforcement can "[require] a person who published information or the relevant service provider [i.e. technology company] to delete the information or provide assistance" including decryption. If the service provider refuses, the police can petition for a warrant to force the intended digital deeds.

In other words, to operate in Hong Kong, a technology company, foreign or domestic, must accept being deputized as a CCP informant. Failure to comply means possible fines of up to $100,000 HKD (around $13,000 USD) and six months in prison.

There are also provisions for surveillance. Subsection 6 outlines a process for law enforcement to apply for "interception of communications and covert surveillance operations" authorities along with a fast-tracked process for "less intrusive covert surveillance."

What future will American companies have in Hong Kong? Some of the biggies have already started to resist: Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft have already paused their information sharing request programs with the Hong Kong government.

Perhaps when the buzz dies down, and it looks to them like the NSL will not be too too onerous, American tech companies will resume normal operations. Hong Kong authorities have tried to assuage concerns by stating that the new laws will only target a small and specific minority. Maybe, maybe not. Would we expect a CCP-controlled jurisdiction to tell us when they plan on abusing power?

And there is great potential for abuse. The NSL does not just apply to Hong Kongers. Article 38 states that the law applies to "[offenses]…committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region"—a.k.a. you. Hope you like the CCP! If you don't, keep your criticisms to yourself.

The NSL is not merely the first step in covering Hong Kong within the CCP's Great Firewall. It tries to extend Chinese jurisdiction over the open internet as well.

It is hard to see a way around a coming tech exodus from Hong Kong. Will American tech companies just tell these various People's Committees to go pound sand? Them and what army? Will the U.S. government back an escalation of conflicts with China on Big Tech's behalf? The potential for brinkmanship is clear.

The problem is built into many companies' business models. Firms like Google and Facebook survive on data-driven advertising. They make money by amassing personally identifiable and behavioral data. Law enforcement agents of any country would love to get their hands on that data, and it can be trivially easy to do this, especially when they have a world power government behind you.

It's a weird situation. The U.S. government has tapped into these rich data veins on persons both within and beyond our borders for years. And although the state here does not censor by law, powerful companies are often close to powerful politicians and they help each other out how they can. For freedom-loving people outside of U.S. borders (and even many people here), this anti-Chinese posture surely smacks of more than a little power-preserving hypocrisy.

The Western internet is undeniably more open than the one behind Great Firewall. But only to the extent that it does not effectively challenge our own power centers. Encryption is already of questionable legality in China. Our leaders are not too far behind with measures like the EARN It Act.

This is not to downplay the severity of the threat to Hong Kong dissidents and the open internet. The NSL must be strongly resisted and criticized because it puts lives at great risk. But so did measures like the PATRIOT Act, which we have merely become accustomed to here in our "free web." It may be that it's easier to challenge dangerous power-grabs when coming from "their side."

Challenges to the open internet emanate from many nations beyond the U.S. and China. Take your pick: there's Australia's encryption war, the German hate crime bill, the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, Brazilian battles against WhatsApp, and now India is getting in on the fun. For a brief and beautiful moment, technology secured free spaces online. As governments have gotten savvier, those free communities have become scarcer.

The sum effects of these developments may be to speed up the development of a more private web. Distributed networks will replace centralized platforms that can be leaned upon to censor or track individuals. Identities will be more pseudonymous and reputation-based rather than tied to bodies that can be oppressed by powerful groups. The act of sending bits will resistant to control even if the developers of the technology that empowers such acts really wished it wasn't.

At least, this is the vision of a new generation of cypherpunks that are working to build these technologies as we speak. It is becoming clearer that governments—even those that profess to operate on principles of liberalism—have no interest in securing a true open internet beyond what suits their present strategies for securing global power.

We can't rely on states. Our strongest hope for resistance against censorship and surveillance lies with technologies that are built to resist censorship and surveillance by design. The question is when current internet users will decide when they've had enough.

NEXT: Justice Fields's Docket Book (October Term 1885)

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  1. Will tech companies resist orders to cooperate with demands for information to root out dissidents?

    No.

    1. Yeah. Pointless article. We knew the answer instantly.

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    2. “Will tech companies resist orders to cooperate with demands for information to root out dissidents?”

      Follow the money; and no one is going to worry much about how Facebook, Google, Yahoo et al are helping the “right kind of government,” which is to say more of the same here. Gotta make people get in line and be with the program. Besides, it’s the only way to save the world that is slated to self detonate in less than a dozen years.

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    4. Tech companies are already muzzling our own dissidents and providing the means for SJWs to root them out.

      1. Yep. Which is why the question is so easy to answer. It’s already been answered. But they’re private companies, and ENB has already expressed her support for doxing, so Reason pretends the question hasn’t already been answered.

  2. The NSL does not just apply to Hong Kongers. Article 38 states that the law applies to “[offenses]…committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region”—a.k.a. you.

    Fuck Emperor Pooh Bear

  3. “To operate in Hong Kong, a technology company, foreign or domestic, must accept being deputized as a CCP informant. Failure to comply means possible fines of up to $100,000 HKD (around $13,000 USD) and six months in prison.

    There are also provisions for surveillance. Subsection 6 outlines a process for law enforcement to apply for “interception of communications and covert surveillance operations” authorities along with a fast-tracked process for “less intrusive covert surveillance.”

    The U.K. just announced that they were banning Huawei from their 5G network, and the more we see what they’re doing with technology companies in Hong Kong, and mainland China, the more banning Huawei from our 5G networks makes sense.

    If they’d do this to their own people and they’d do it to the people of Hong Kong, why wouldn’t they do it us?

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    2. I think we will start seeing a realignment on the China / Western relationship. Probably would have had it sooner after the fall of the USSR if not for the 9/11 attacks.

      1. I think it was going in a healthier direction for awhile as well. The current President has pushed it significantly back into an authoritarian direction.

        I think this will likely lead to a dramatic shift in their nations fortunes, but how long it takes it to collapse is unknown. Showing any amount of resistance moving forward is very valuable and will hopefully encourage that collapse and realignment of their nation.

        Especially if they have something similar to Japan, where they cannot make the jump from a manufacturing economy and see decades of stagflation.

        1. “I think it was going in a healthier direction for awhile as well. The current President has pushed it significantly back into an authoritarian direction.”

          Yes, Trump’s fault China has been stealing tech for decades, running concentration camps, et al.

          China has no possible control over itself.

          1. The Chinese president. The previous one was obviously authoritarian as well, but Winnie the Pooh is taking to another level.

  4. Will tech companies resist orders to cooperate with demands for information to root out dissidents?

    No. Tech companies are more interested in chasing that sweet China cash than silly things like people’s rights to privacy.

  5. It will only apply to a small minority. Hong Kong is a small minority of china. Proble solved

    1. The tyranny of the majority, for the win!

  6. The question is when current internet users will decide when they’ve had enough.

    When they get cabin fever from the COVID lockdown?

  7. “Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”

    I hope this committee’s official acronym sounds better in the original Mandarin. CSNSHKSAR doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

  8. The only surprise in this is how long it took China to crack down. Dictators gotta dictate.

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  10. “Will tech companies resist orders to cooperate with demands for information to root out dissidents?”

    A few may say they’ll resist, but when they get a warrant they’ll roll over like a puppy wanting a tummy rub.

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  12. The question is when current internet users will decide when they’ve had enough.

    It’s not going to be about Internet users. It’s going to be about the Internet destinations/tools/platforms/protocols. The potential competition to the existing.

    I see no competition there and none in the pipeline as long as tech companies are chasing VC cash and the financial incentives that flow from that – notably compensation via stock options.

    There are other business models out there – from Web 1.0 era – and possibly some new ones. But they died. I thought blockchain might be a great alternative to the VC stranglehold – but not so.

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  14. Or, maybe Hong Kong, which is an autonomous region of China, will be just fine. The law is not retroactive. The dissidents have simply gone back to normal lives. Unless we find out differently, why can’t we accept that?
    The law was aimed specifically to stop foreign NGO from stirring up trouble. Reason has generally been behind the curve on color revolutions. They were behind the two Ukrainian Soros uprisings and now the National Endowment for Democracy and CIA interference in Hong Kong. The “Freedom of Speech” they are complaining about is the freedom to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries they don’t like.

    1. “Or, maybe Hong Kong, which is an autonomous region of China, will be just fine. The law is not retroactive.”

      *snicker*

      It’s cute that you think that.

      HK was also supposed to have no Chinese domination before 2047 at earliest. Yet, here we are.

      “The dissidents have simply gone back to normal lives. Unless we find out differently, why can’t we accept that?”

      “The Jews in Germany aren’t complaining anymore. I bet that ‘Final Solution’ thing was something they approved of”

      “The law was aimed specifically to stop foreign NGO from stirring up trouble. Reason has generally been behind the curve on color revolutions. They were behind the two Ukrainian Soros uprisings and now the National Endowment for Democracy and CIA interference in Hong Kong. The “Freedom of Speech” they are complaining about is the freedom to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries they don’t like.”

      So, Chinese are allowed to criticize the Chinese government?

      Where and when?

  15. Sounds like satellite-based world wide internet is due. Sure, countries could prohibit servicing such stations / satellites, but there will always be someone who wants the business.

    1. The Internet is dead. Long live the Internet!

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