Hong Kong forces Tiananmen Square group to remove Facebook page
HONG KONG – Hong Kong police have forced one of the city’s best-known activist groups to clean up its online presence, in latest sign of how authorities can use a powerful national security law to restrict online speech and enforce Chinese-style internet censorship. .
The group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of China’s Democratic Patriotic Movements, has for decades held annual vigils to commemorate the 1989 massacre by the government of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. Even as the Chinese central government tried to erase the memory of the massacre on the mainland, the alliance operated freely in Hong Kong, which, as a former British colony, had been promised civil liberties absent from the rest of China.
The group’s social media pages openly criticized the government. Its “About” section on Facebook, for example, said it was dedicated to “the struggle for democracy, freedom and human rights” in China.
But the security law, which the central government imposed on Hong Kong last year to quell months of pro-democracy protests, allows authorities to order the removal of online content deemed to endanger security. national.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, the alliance said police invoked the law and ordered it to remove “designated electronic content,” and in response it would remove its website, Facebook page and others. social media accounts that night.
In a statement, police declined to comment on specific cases, but cited powers granted by the Security Act, and noted that they were “applicable” only in cases that could threaten national security.
“The public can continue to use the Internet legally and will not be affected,” the statement said.
It was not the first time that Hong Kong police have used the law to curb the once-free flow of information online. In January, authorities appeared to temporarily cut off access to a website that leaked private information about police officers and other government supporters, a practice known as doxxing.
In May, police successfully asked Wix, an Israeli website hosting company, to take down a site built by a group of pro-democracy activists in exile. Wix then apologized and reversed course.
It was also not the authorities’ first effort to suppress the alliance, which has become one of the most prominent targets under the law. For the past two years, the government has banned the group from holding its annual vigil. Many of its leaders have been arrested or jailed, with some accused of subversion under the Security Act. Police also asked for details of the group’s funding and membership.
Yet the alliance’s forced removal marked the most high-profile example to date of police crackdown on online expression. As much of Hong Kong society has been transformed to look more like the mainland, there are concerns that the city’s digital spaces are as well. On the mainland, Facebook, Twitter and many Western media are blocked, and an army of censors are working tirelessly to remove sensitive content.
Critics have also pointed to the Hong Kong government’s plans to enact what it calls an anti-doxxing bill, although experts have called the language too broad and open to abuse. Officials also proposed targeting “fake news,” which many believe could be used to further reduce voices critical of the government.
On Thursday, the city’s largest pro-Beijing political party offered to follow the central government’s lead in enforcing tighter controls on video games, including enacting time limits for minors, requiring registration. under their real name and banning pornographic content.
“The open Internet hunting season is on, I think,” said Lokman Tsui, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity watchdog. “They attacked the media, educational institutions, unions. But now it seems like it’s time to “fix the Internet”.
In particular, analysts noted that the order targeting the alliance was the first known case of police using the security law to force a group to delete messages themselves, rather than going through service providers. such as Wix.
The security law allows either scenario. But major internet companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, have expressed concern over the security law, at least temporarily pledging to stop complying with the Hong Kong government’s demands for user data. Some have even threatened to pull out of the city, fearing that the planned anti-doxxing law would hold company employees accountable for user actions, though the government said these concerns were unwarranted.
By targeting users, police could bypass platforms, said Glacier Kwong, a digital rights activist from Hong Kong now in Germany who is completing a doctorate in data protection.
“Most of the online service providers are huge corporations based in the United States or overseas,” Ms. Kwong said. “But for individual civil society groups or individuals, they do not have the power to compete with the enormous grip of national security law.”
Ms Kwong said it was unlikely in the short term that Hong Kong would erect a digital firewall like this on the mainland, blocking sites like Facebook outright. The authorities were still invested in presenting an open front to the world, she said. But she said she expected more withdrawal requests from the police.
“They found it to be useful against one of the biggest groups in Hong Kong, so of course they will try to use it on other groups so they can get a very clean internet,” a- she declared.
Already, the security law has left Hong Kong’s digital spaces – which during the 2019 protests turned into loud forums for organizing, encouraging and criticizing the government – significantly more bare than before. In the weeks after the law was implemented, social media users rushed to remove critical posts and pro-democracy media removed opinion columns.
Radio Television Hong Kong, a government broadcaster once known for fiercely independent reporting, has cut YouTube programs over a year old. When Apple Daily, the city’s main pro-democracy newspaper, closed its doors in June under pressure from the government, it erased all of its online archives.
The alliance, before closing its Facebook page, opened a new one. But it’s unclear to what extent the group, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment, will replicate their former online presence. So far, the page contains only one post, explaining the order of the police to remove the previous profile.
The “About” section of the page is empty.
Joy Dong contributed research