The New York Times reports on the inaugural coordinated sting under the legislation, against a man named Tony Chung. His “Internet crime,” as the strictures call it? Writing a Facebook post supporting his nation’s independence. Authorities cornered him in a stairwell and attempted to force his face in front of his phone to trigger its recognition unlocking mechanism. Eventually, it seems, they managed to break into his account while he was detained. This accompanies the arrest of activist Agnes Chow weeks after she uploaded a YouTube video designed to teach citizens about cybersecurity in a dawning age of limitless snooping; supposedly an infrared camera was installed next to her doorstep beforehand. And media mogul Jimmy Lai’s company believes police attempted a phishing scam to gain the credentials for his account hours after they took him in earlier this month.
These stories surely jar the people of Hong Kong; after all, unlike their counterparts on the mainland, they grew up viewing the Internet as a source of openness and connection to the wider world. The tales also likely alarm the technology companies from the United States and elsewhere that made a home in Hong Kong and now suddenly find themselves in hostile territory. Facebook, Google and Twitter have all said they won’t comply with data requests under the law — but that’s a temporary solution. They must now determine what a permanent one looks like, just as the Hong Kong government determines how much noncompliance it is willing to tolerate.
Hong Kong is the latest frontier in a fight over Internet freedom that is occurring around the world. Just this week, Facebook challenged an order to partially shut down a group critical of the monarchy in Thailand, a nation whose computer crime law is frequently revised to tighten government control over the Internet. But Facebook first complied with the order, caught between its view that the request violated international human rights law and its commitment to obey local law. What happens if the courts rule against Facebook in Thailand, and what will companies do when officials in other places insist that they assist in quashing civilian expression?