FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION ONLINE UNDER FIRE IN HONG KONG

An injunction restricting online messaging imposed by Hong Kong’s highest court on October 31st might be the scariest thing to have happened on Halloween. Echoing many in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, law-maker Charles Mok warned on Oct 31st that “The temporary injunction sets an extremely dangerous precedent for introducing internet censorship of online speech similar to the Great Firewall of China.” Is this, as pundits the world over hurry to point out, the latest attempt to restrict the freedoms so long enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong, or does this signify a more radical change in policy, perhaps induced by the protests themselves?

Hong Kong and its citizens have long escaped much of the online censorship imposed in mainland China in the past 20 years: under the One Country, Two Systems principle, Hong Kong and Macau financial and technological sectors have prospered, in part by by avoiding the firewall restricting internet-use on the mainland. The “Great Firewall” of China, introduced in the 1990’s alongside the Golden Shield domestic surveillance initiative, has awarded China for the fourth consecutive year the bottom spot in online freedom by banning both domestic criticism on local politicians as well as undesirable foreign content or services. The system has also long been credited for effectively erasing for the Chinese population certain key events and people in their history – the Tiananmen Square movement comes to mind – and targeting any content or forums that might incite demonstrations, be it for the government or against it. This last facet of the firewall is proving almost prophetic as protesters in Hong Kong, entering their 7th month of demonstrations this week, are being targeted online.

The internet has so far been important in the mobilization and the organization of the protests, and the injunctions imposed in the last weeks are only the latest in a series of actions forewarned earlier in August, when Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam began talking about restricting and censoring publications and messaging services. The latest measures, while only temporary, drew particular ire as they were aimed at protecting the “doxxing” of police officers: while they have been the subject of personal and near-lethal attacks, they have also been widely accused of using brutal and unnecessary force to subdue the protests. The potential banning of messaging application Telegram and Hong Kong forum site LIKHG have also caused widespread concern, as such a move effectively amounts to a law targeting a select group – a serious move which should be dealt with through new legislation and not an injunction, according to Professor Simon Young of the University of Hong Kong’s law school.

Some, such as the government in Hong Kong, say that these measures only reflect temporary policy choices that directly address the protests, but other groups strongly disagree. AccessNow, a group defending and extending the digital rights of users at risk around the world, warns that “This injunction threatens to undermine fundamental human rights at a time when it is crucial for government authorities to respect and protect those rights. We fear that this creeping censorship marks another step toward a full internet shutdown in Hong Kong and will undermine the open and secure internet in Hong Kong and elsewhere.” This statement seems to echo Charles Mok’s warning and opens up the possibility that rather than being a temporary measure, it is the start of a slide of Hong Kong’s long-term freedom of expression online. Given the importance of internet freedom both as a democratic value and a financial necessity to the autonomous region, this would certainly be of larger concern, and the government of Hong Kong would do well to approach any restrictions with care and consideration for its long term effects.

Written by: Alexander van Thiel

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