2021-09-17 14:14:10 Hong Kong Forces Tiananmen Square Group to Delete Facebook Page

Hong Kong Forces Tiananmen Square Group to Delete Facebook Page

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police have forced one of the city’s most well-known activist groups to delete its online presence, in the latest example of how officials may use a powerful national security law to restrict online speech and impose internet censorship a la mainland China.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China has been organizing annual vigils to commemorate the 1989 government massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing for decades. Even as the central Chinese government attempted to erase the massacre’s memory from the mainland, the alliance operated freely in Hong Kong, which, as a former British colony, was promised civil liberties not found elsewhere in China.

The government was openly criticized on the group’s social media pages. Its Facebook “About” section, for example, stated that it was dedicated to “striving for democracy, freedom, and human rights” in China.

However, the security law imposed on Hong Kong by the central government last year to quell months of pro-democracy protests empowers officials to order the removal of online content deemed to endanger national security.

The alliance said in a Facebook post on Thursday that the police had invoked the law and ordered it to delete “designated electronic content,” and that in response, it would delete 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, noting that they were “only applicable” in cases posing a threat to national security.

“The general public can continue to use the internet lawfully and will not be affected,” according to the statement.

It was not the first time Hong Kong police had used the law to restrict the previously unrestricted flow of online information. Authorities appeared to temporarily block access to a website that disclosed private information about police officers and other government supporters in January, a practice known as doxxing.

In May, the police successfully requested that Wix, an Israeli website-hosting company, remove a website created by a group of exiled pro-democracy activists. Wix later apologized and changed his mind.

It was also not the authorities’ first attempt to dismantle the alliance, which has become one of the most high-profile targets under the law. The government has prohibited the group from holding its annual vigil for the past two years. Many of its leaders have been arrested or imprisoned, and some have been charged with subversion under security law. The police have also requested information on the group’s funding and membership.

Nonetheless, the alliance’s forced deletion was the most high-profile example yet of the police clamping down on online expression. As much of Hong Kong society has been transformed to resemble that of the mainland, some fear that the city’s digital spaces will follow suit. Facebook, Twitter, and many Western news outlets are blocked on the mainland, 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 pass an anti-doxxing bill, though experts have criticized the language as being overly broad and open to abuse. Officials have also proposed a crackdown on “fake news,” which many fear will be used to silence critics of the government.

On Thursday, the city’s largest pro-Beijing political party proposed following the central government’s lead and enacting stricter controls on video gaming, including time limits for minors, real-name registration, and a ban on pornographic content.

“I believe the open internet hunting season has begun,” said Lokman Tsui, a Hong Kong-based fellow at Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity watchdog organization. “They were targeting the media, educational institutions, and labor unions. But it appears that it is now time to ‘fix the internet.'”

Analysts noted that the order targeting the alliance was the first known instance of the police using security law to force a group to delete posts directly rather than through service providers like Wix.

The security legislation allows for either scenario. However, major internet companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have expressed concern about the security law, pledging to stop complying with Hong Kong government requests for user data at least temporarily. Some even threatened to leave the city because they were concerned that the proposed anti-doxxing law would hold the companies’ employees liable for the actions of their customers, though the government said those fears were unfounded.

The police could circumvent the platforms by targeting the users, according to Glacier Kwong, a Hong Kong digital rights activist currently pursuing a doctorate in data protection in Germany.

“Most of the online service providers are either huge US-based or huge foreign-based companies,” Ms. Kwong explained. “However, individual civil society groups or individuals lack the power to compete with the massive grip of national security law.”

Ms. Kwong believes that, in the short term, Hong Kong will not erect a digital firewall similar to the one in the mainland, effectively blocking sites such as Facebook. She claimed that the authorities were still committed to presenting an open front to the rest of the world. However, she stated that she expected more takedown requests from the police.

“They discovered it is useful against one of Hong Kong’s largest groups, so of course they will try to use it on other groups in order to achieve a very clean internet,” she explained.

Already, the security law has made Hong Kong’s digital spaces, which became raucous forums for organizing, cheerleading, and criticizing the government during the 2019 protests, significantly barrer than before. In the weeks following the law’s implementation, social media users rushed to remove critical posts, and pro-democracy news outlets removed opinion columns.

Radio Television Hong Kong, a government broadcaster once known for fiercely independent reporting, has removed programs older than a year from YouTube. When the city’s leading pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, folded in June under government pressure, it deleted its entire online archive.

Before closing down its Facebook page, the alliance created a new one. However, it is unclear how much the group, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment, will replicate its previous online presence. So far, there is only one post on the page, which explains the police order to delete the previous profile.

Joy Dong contributed to the research.

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Hong Kong Forces Tiananmen Square Group to Delete Facebook Page