Hong Kong Says Doxxing Law Alarming Tech Firms Strikes ‘Balance’

Hong Kong Says Doxxing Law Alarming Tech Firms Strikes ‘Balance’
·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong defended steps to toughen legislation banning the publication of personal information to harass people -- or “doxxing” -- as local lawmakers took up the latest measure in a security campaign that’s worrying tech companies in the Asian financial center.

The Legislative Council began debating legal changes that would create new punishments for posting information deemed harmful. Disclosure of data that harms individuals or their relatives would be punishable by as long as five years in prison and fines as large as HK$1 million ($130,000). The release of someone’s data without their consent could result in two years in jail and a fine of HK$100,000.

The government is seeking to crack down on the posting of personal details about police officers and other public officials, a tactic used by democracy activists two years ago during widespread unrest in the former British colony. In October 2019, a Hong Kong court granted the government’s request for an order banning the publication of officers’ personal information.

Eric Tsang, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, told lawmakers Wednesday that the bill “struck a suitable balance between protecting privacy and protecting freedom of speech.” While Tsang said “lawful news activities would not be affected at all,” he said the government couldn’t exempt media organizations from the legislation.

“We are talking about the disclosure of personal information of individuals including their family members and young children -- these people have to live in fear and young children are scared as they go to school,” Tsang said. “So this so-called freedom, which is an infringement upon others’ privacy causing actual harm to others, has it crossed the line of social morality? Should it not be subjected to suitable constraint?”

The bill has raised concern about internet censorship in Hong Kong, which was guaranteed freedom of speech until at least 2047 under a “one country, two systems” framework. That contrasts with mainland China, where foreign social media and internet search services are blocked, and news organizations and filmmakers face tight restrictions.

The anti-doxxing measure is part of series of moves that have limited what residents can say, do or post online, including the enactment of a national security law banning speech deemed secessionist and a system of vetting candidates for public office for patriotic behavior. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has also said the city is researching how fake news laws work abroad.

Last week, U.S. President Joseph Biden’s administration warned investors about the risks of doing business in Hong Kong, citing concerns about the security law, data privacy and access to critical business information. China’s top agency for Hong Kong dismissed the advisory as “pure nonsense,” arguing that recent moves had made the city more stable.

The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group representing companies like Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc., detailed several objections to doxxing rules last month. Among the key issues raised by the group was the absence of a concrete definition of doxxing, which is commonly understood as the disclosure of someone’s personal information against their wishes.

It also expressed concern about the broad investigative powers the changes would grant to Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner, and the liability for intermediary services such as Facebook and Twitter who may find themselves sanctioned for user content. Despite these concerns, no member of the AIC is seeking to pull out of Hong Kong, the coalition said in a separate email.

Representatives for Facebook, Twitter and Google declined to comment.

The first reading of the legislation took place Wednesday, and a motion was passed to proceed to the second, though it’s unclear when that will happen. Bills in Hong Kong are passed after three readings. The government said in a statement on July 14 that it is supporting lawmakers “in scrutinizing the Bill to strive for its early passage.”

Hong Kong opposition lawmakers resigned en masse last year to protest Beijing’s political crackdown, leaving the Legislative Council filled with government supporters who can easily pass any piece of legislation.

Lam likened the worry over the legislation to the concerns expressed in advance of the security law, saying: “Only through the implementation of a regulation will we know how effective it is.” Hong Kong has since used the law to arrest at least 132 people -- with roughly three-quarters for incidents related to speech -- and freeze the assets of the city’s largest opposition newspaper, leading to its closure.

Privacy Commissioner Ada Chung said on a Radio Television Hong Kong program Friday that websites could be blocked if they didn’t remove content related to doxxing, but said that move would be a last resort.

(Recasts with details of Wednesday’s proceedings.)

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