In response to China’s enactment of Hong Kong’s National Security Law on June 30 (last Tuesday), multiple Big Tech firms have suspended their mechanisms to process data requests from law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong. Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter and Telegram have paused their data request mechanisms while TikTok has announced that it will cease its operations in the territory. We have also reached out to Apple to know their stance on the situation.

The National Security Law defines offences very broadly and allows the police to take down internet posts and punish internet companies that do not comply with data requests. For not complying with the law, companies could be fined almost $13,000 and authorities could jail employees of the internet companies for six months. If an employee refuses to remove content as ordered, they could be jailed for a year. The police can also order deletion of posts that threaten national security. Since the new law applies across the world, companies would also have to give data of users in countries outside Hong Kong.

Since the law was enacted, Hong Kongers have reportedly been scrubbing their social media profiles. Many activists fear that this law will chill speech and diminish Hong Kongers’ right to protest.

Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter hit pause

Facebook and WhatsApp have also paused their review of government requests for user data from Hong Kong until the National Security Law is further assessed. A Facebook spokesperson sent us the following statement which is also applicable to WhatsApp:

“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. We have a global process for government requests and in reviewing each individual request, we consider Facebook’s policies, local laws and international human rights standards. 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.

[emphasis ours]

As per Facebook’s transparency report, between July and December 2019, the company received 241 requests in all from Hong Kong authorities and produced data for 46% of them. In addition, it received 48 preservation requests for 52 users/accounts, that is, requests to preserve account information pending receipt of formal legal process, that Facebook complied with.

In a statement sent to press, including MediaNama, a Google spokesperson said, “Last Wednesday, when the law took effect, we paused production on any new data requests from Hong Kong authorities, and we’ll continue to review the details of the new law.”

According to Google’s transparency report, since 2009, the company has received 100 requests from the Hong Kong government/authorities to remove content for 737 items. Of these, 16 were raised by the police of which 8 requests were complied with via content removal. No requests were made by the military or government officials. The company has received content removal requests for national security and government criticism reasons in the past. Data for number of government requests for user data was not available.

In response to MediaNama’s request for clarification, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed, “Twitter paused all data and information requests from the Hong Kong authorities immediately after the law went into effect last week.” Here is the complete statement from the company:

“Given the rapid pace at which the new National Security Law in China has been passed and that it was only published in its entirety for the first time last week, our teams are reviewing the law to assess its implications, particularly as some of the terms of the law are vague and without clear definition. Like many public interest organisations, civil society leaders and entities, and industry peers, we have grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law. Twitter cares and is committed to protecting the people using our service and their freedom of expression. We have a strong track record in the region of safeguarding the experience of people who use our service where it is freely available to them.” — Twitter spokesperson

According to Twitter’s transparency report, between July 2013 and June 2019, the company received 15 account information requests from Hong Kong authorities that specified 21 accounts; the company did not produce information for any of those requests.

TikTok will quit operations in the city

TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance, went much beyond any of the other companies and said it would exit the Hong Kong market within days, Reuters reported. According to the New York Times, the company also said that it would make the app inoperable for users within the city in a few days. As per the Reuters report, TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer had previously said that the app’s user data is not stored in China. According to the app’s privacy policy, personal data is stored in either the US or in Singapore, but “We [TikTok] maintain major servers around the world to bring you our services globally and continuously”.

According to the Reuters report, TikTok had previously said that it would not comply with requests by Chinese government to censor content or for access to the app’s user data; something that the Chinese government has not asked for. Moreover, TikTok is the international version of the Chinese app Douyin. Douyin is available in mainland China (and not in overseas app stores) but TikTok is not. According the Reuters report, there are no plans to introduce Douyin in Hong Kong.

We have reached out to the company for more information.

Telegram will wait for an international consensus on the law, but stops complying in the interim period

On Sunday, Telegram’s Mike Ravdonikas told Hong Kong Free Press that the app will not entertain any data requests from the Honk Kong authorities “until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city”. He also reportedly said that Telegram had not disclosed any data to Hong Kong authorities in the past.

ProtonMail refuses to share data with HK police

In a tweet, end-to-end encrypted email service whose servers are stores in Switzerland, said that it would “not comply or assist with any demands to enforce Article 43″ of the National Security Law. In its explanation of Article 43 of the National Security Law that grants police the sweeping powers to monitor and intercept content, and order its takedown for “national security” reasons, ProtonMail said that “without a Swiss court order, we will not assist or comply with any Chinese demands over Article 43“. It also explicitly called out Apple for its “voluntary cooperation” with the Chinese government to enforce censorship. It linked out to its own blog post wherein it criticised Apple for censoring news platforms such as the New York Times and Bloomberg News and blocking access to the HKMaps app in Hong Kong that supported the local democracy protests.

Signal has no data to share

In a cheeky response to HKFP’s article about Telegram, end-to-end encrypted app Signal tweeted, “We’d announce that we’re stopping too, but we never started turning over user data to HK police. Also, we don’t have user data to turn over.”

***Update (July 8, 2020 5:48 pm): Updated with ProtonMail’s stance.

***Update (July 8, 2020 11:01 am): Updated with Twitter’s response that it paused all requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately after the law went into effect. Rest of the story has been updated to reflect that.Originally published on July 7 at 5:48 pm.