A sweeping new security law in Hong Kong has raised questions for big tech companies’ operations in the territory, with Facebook, Google and Twitter temporarily blocking authorities’ access to user data; TikTok – under pressure around the world for its proximity to China – says it will exit the market within days.
“In light of recent events, we’ve decided to stop operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong,” a spokesperson for the wildly popular app told the news agency Reuters. It follows statements from the company that it would refuse requests from Beijing to censor content or for user data.
The new law has sparked widespread concern around the world but its implications are largely unknown.
Until it was passed on June 30, nobody other than government officials had seen it. The last week has seen experts and legal departments scrambling to grasp its implications. Suffice to say that its powers are vast, criminalising secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Beijing will have power over the interpretation of the law, rather than Hong Kong’s judiciary. Some trials will take place behind closed doors.
Crucially, it has beefed up the Chinese government’s leverage over foreign companies with jail terms for non-compliant firms.
On Monday, according to the Financial Times, the local government in Hong Kong clarified that it would require platforms to take down content deemed illegal, decline access to certain individuals, and comply with decryption requests (with a warrant).
As a result, all of the major American social platforms – Google, Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Twitter, and even LinkedIn have all temporarily blocked Hong Kong authorities from accessing data while they review the implications of the law, in what had been the only common law jurisdiction in China. The news of LinkedIn’s resistance is particularly interesting, given that it operates in China by complying with local laws.
The situation is a further complication of the multi-dimensional political maelstrom in which TikTok finds itself. Owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company that also operates Douyin, an equivalent app in mainland China, TikTok’s creation and design was a concerted effort to distance the app from China and increase global appeal.
It has done this by making sure it is well known that the app keeps user data in the user’s market and does not send it to China (though a lawsuit last year added fuel to sceptics’ fire by claiming the app sends data to ByteDance’s home market “surreptitiously”).
As a result, this is now a key promise that TikTok cannot afford to abandon, especially with US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo’s jab at the app, which the government is “looking at” banning, citing national security concerns. TikTok maintains these are unfounded.
In Hong Kong, TikTok operates in a loss-making market, according to Reuters, in which it serves just 150,000 users; Douyin – the mainland equivalent – has many more, despite not technically belonging to Hong Kong-based app stores.
The passing of the law is the latest move in the struggle for the future of the city, which has since 1997 operated a “one country, two systems” framework, in which citizens of the territory were allowed certain freedoms such as unfettered access to the internet and the right to protest.
More broadly, it indicates the rising tensions for Chinese companies attempting to internationalise and for international companies looking to participate in the colossal and unignorable Chinese market. It is a dilemma that won't be going away any time soon.
Sourced from Reuters, Financial Times, BBC, CNN; additional content by WARC staff