Google, Facebook, and Twitter halt government data requests after new Hong Kong security law

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Google, Facebook, and Twitter are pausing the processing of data requests from the Hong Kong government as they review a new security law that went into effect on July 1st. Google put its pause into place as soon as the law took effect last Wednesday.

“[W]hen the law took effect, we paused production on any new data requests from Hong Kong authorities,” a Google spokesperson told The Verge in an email, “and we’ll continue to review the details of the new law,” the spokesperson said.

Twitter also halted its handling of government requests as of July 1st, with Facebook announcing its pause on Monday, The New York Times reported.

Social media platforms typically produce private user information in response to valid court orders, depending on the legal process in various countries. But under this new position, all the companies will, at least temporarily, ignore the requests coming from the government of Hong Kong.

The new policies are in response to China’s new national security law in Hong Kong, which was first proposed in May. Hong Kong has traditionally enjoyed significant independence from mainland China, but the central Chinese government has tightened restrictions on speech in Hong Kong in recent months, bringing a gradual end to the “one country, two systems” principle. China’s push toward more control has led to widespread protests across Hong Kong, which began last year.

In particular, the new security law gives China the power to limit political dissent against the Communist Party, making it unlawful to engage in “secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Those powers are particularly relevant for social platforms, which may be hosting the now-criminalized subversive activities.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter have both been banned in China for several years, part of the so-called “Great Firewall,” under which government censors and monitors track online activity.

The new security law has already compelled several political opposition parties in Hong Kong to disband, NPR reported, and is expected to further chill political dissent against Beijing in Hong Kong.

“We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email to The Verge.

Twitter says it is reviewing the new law to assess the implications, adding many terms of the new law are “vague and without clear definition,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to The Verge. “Like many public interest organizations, civil society leaders and entities, and industry peers, we have grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law.”

Facebook has a process for reviewing government requests, which takes into account its own policies and local laws as well as international human rights standards, the spokesperson added. “We are pausing the review of government requests for user data from Hong Kong pending further assessment of the National Security Law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts.”

Facebook has offices in China and uses Chinese suppliers to manufacture some of its hardware, including its Oculus VR headsets and its Portal video chat devices. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has attempted to mend relations with China in the past, meeting with Communist Party leaders while in Beijing for an economic forum in 2016. More recently, he’s pushed concerns about China setting the terms for online engagement. “If another nation’s platform sets the rules,” Zuckerberg said last year, “our nation’s discourse could be defined by a completely different set of values.”

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