In brief

  • US social media giants are blocking Hong Kong authorities from accessing user data.
  • Facebook, Google, and Twitter joined Telegram in "pausing" their cooperation after strict security laws were introduced to curb dissent.
  • Experts believe their common stance against censorship could make it harder for authorities to exert their will.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter will block Hong Kong’s authorities from accessing user data, after sweeping new security laws stifling political dissent were announced on 1 July.

The tech giants said on Monday that they were still assessing the laws, which threatens jail terms against companies that do not comply. But their reaction marks a rare public display of concern towards Chinese policy by major US firms. 

The new laws ban "separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference,” and require social media networks to remove content the authorities deem illegal and comply with their decryption requests. Experts fear that it will be used widely to curb dissent in Hong Kong, which, up until now, has mostly tolerated public protests. 

Telegram, championed by Hong Kong protestors, announced on Sunday that it would not cooperate with authorities’ requests. The encrypted messaging app saw users quadruple at the height of the Hong Kong protests, according to Sensor Tower data.

WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Facebook, is also popular. The social media platform said its actions were to support the right of people to express themselves without “fear for their safety.” 

A united stance against censorship?

Hong Kong, which was previously a British territory, was handed back to China in 1997, on the condition it would enjoy special freedoms for 50 years. Until the start of this month, Hong Kong residents had used social media without restriction—unlike citizens on the mainland.

Experts told the Financial Times that the common stance presented by the tech companies could make it harder for Beijing to impose its will, but Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at security specialist firm ProPrivacy warned of the danger of even more severe censorship by the authorities. 

 

Popular video app TikTok, which is owned by China-based ByteDance went even further than the US firms and said it will exit the Hong Kong market within days, and has also resisted calls to supply user data to Chinese authorities. 

Social media platform Reddit, which counts China’s Tencent among its backers, said it had not received any requests from Hong Kong and that its policies on protecting user information were not influenced by its investors.

Apple and Microsoft are yet to reveal their policies towards the new laws. But Microsoft-owned LinkedIn has said it’s "pausing" the processing of data requests from authorities.

But many Hong Kongers are taking no chances, Nikkei reported that, since the security laws were announced, social media users have been rushing to alter their digital footprints or remove their presence entirely from social media.