As ‘Great Firewall’ looms, concerns about free internet in Hong Kong | Business and Economy

For decades, Hong Kong’s internet has operated out of the reach of China’s vast army of censorship, ensuring the free flow of information that underpins the city’s standing as a global business hub.

Little by little, this is starting to change, as a small but growing list of websites has darkened under a widespread crackdown on dissent.

The creeping censorship casts uncertainty about the city’s free and open internet future, a magnet for international companies that have remained largely unfettered by Beijing’s National Security Law (NSL) virtually eliminating all political dissent, silencing critical media and Civil society.

“So far, in cases of suspected takedowns under the National Security Act, the police have given no indication even if the NSL was applied to those websites that ‘disappeared,'” said Charles Mock, a former pro-democracy politician who represented Hong Kong’s IT sector. for the island.

“There is no reason to believe that this will not happen infrequently,” Mok added, predicting that the concept of a national security threat could be expanded to include topics such as Hong Kong’s controversial “zero COVID” pandemic policy.

Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based organization that advocates for freedoms in the city, said on Monday that its website had become inaccessible through certain networks in Chinese territory.

Hong Kong Watch CEO Benedict Rogers said the blocking of the site, if confirmed, would be a “serious blow to internet freedom”, and raise concerns that Beijing plans to put Hong Kong behind the “Great Firewall”, under which popular websites such as such Google, Facebook and Twitter are banned.

Hong Kong police said they did not comment on individual cases but carried out operations “based on actual conditions and in accordance with the law”.

A growing list of blocked websites

The site is at least the fourth pro-democracy or anti-government website to be blocked in the city since the national security law was imposed in July 2020, according to Nathan Hammond, an independent digital rights analyst based in Hong Kong.

Previous blocked sites in the city include HK Charter 2021, a pro-democracy charter drafted by activists from Hong Kong-in-exile, and HKChronicles, a site used by activists to police and Beijing supporters.

Under the National Security Act, authorities can order Internet service providers to remove content deemed to constitute or encourage subversion, separatism, collusion with foreign forces, or terrorist acts, all of which are vaguely defined. The law, under which more than 150 people have been arrested, many for speech offenses, was widely condemned as harsh by human rights activists, civil society leaders and foreign governments.

The Hong Kong and Beijing government credited the law with restoring order to the city after often violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Although the scope of the city’s internet controls remains narrow so far, the acceleration of censorship will deal another blow to the former British colony’s image as a good place to do business, which is already under pressure due to some of the world’s toughest pandemic rules. The Chinese territory, labeled for decades as Asia’s “Global City,” faces a mass exodus of businesses and talent as a growing population grows tired of lengthy quarantines, travel bans and strict social distancing rules with no end in sight, even as the rest of the world learns to coexist. with COVID-19.

Hong Kong skyline
Hong Kong’s open internet has always been an attraction for foreign companies [File: Peter Park/AFP] (AFP)

In a survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong in July, 84 percent of respondents said that free internet access is very important to doing business. However, only 46 percent expressed optimism that their access would remain unrestricted in Hong Kong over the next three years.

“In short, the free flow of information is seen as critical to international businesses and individual employees in Hong Kong,” Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo, told Al Jazeera. “Right now, people think they have solid access to the information they need, but there is concern about the future.”

A spokesman for the Hong Kong police force told Al Jazeera that the national security letter applies only to items “that are likely to constitute an offense that threatens national security or are likely to cause an offense that threatens national security.”

“The public can continue to use the internet legally and will not be affected,” the spokesperson said.

While they have been reluctant to confirm cases of internet censorship, Hong Kong authorities have indicated their intention to impose further restrictions on the flow of information, including a law to tackle so-called “fake news”. The city government has also promised to draft its own national security law to plug “gaps” in the legislation imposed by Beijing.

Mok, the former politician, said authorities may find it difficult to import mainland-style wholesale internet censorship into Hong Kong “since the telecom regulatory framework is very different and many global and local companies are licensed to provide outbound communication services”.

But he said a “fake firewall” had already been put in place.

“The free flow of information is critical to business, investment, business and the economy,” Mock said.

“Even the government has repeatedly said that the free flow of information is one of Hong Kong’s advantages in the past, and it shouldn’t be any different now,” he added. “I think companies are worried about that, but very few are coming out to speak, fearing the repercussions.”