Tech giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google have warned Hong Kong's government that they may stop offering services if plans to change data protection laws that could make them liable for malicious sharing of users' information proceed.
According to a letter sent by an industry group, including the three big tech companies, the planned rules could put staff members at risk of investigation or prosecution based on what users post online, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The rules change intends to address doxing, or the practice of revealing personal information about people online so others can harass them.
In May, Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau proposed amendments to the city’s data-protection laws after doxing became prevalent during the pro-democracy protests in 2019, when police officers and opposition figures were especially hit.
The plan calls for punishments of up to $1 million in Hong Kong dollars, which equals about $128,000 in U.S. currency, and up to five years in prison.
In the letter, sent from the Singapore-based Asia Internet Coalition to Hong Kong's Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data in June, the group told the government that the "only way to avoid these sanctions for technology companies would be to refrain from investing and offering the services in Hong Kong."
Coalition director Jeff Paine also wrote that while his group and its members oppose doxing, the amendments' wording could leave firms and their locally based staff subject to criminal investigations and prosecution for doxing offenses on their websites, which would be a "completely disproportionate and unnecessary response."
The coalition also warned that the amendments could criminalize "innocent acts of sharing information online" and hinder free expression and suggested creating a more clearly defined scope to violations.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google representatives declined to comment on the letter, and none of the firms disclose how many employees they have in Hong Kong. Analysts estimate the firms combined have maybe 100 local staff employees there.
A spokeswoman for the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data acknowledged the office got the letter but said the new rules are needed because doxing has "tested the limits of morality and the law."
Since 2019, Hong Kong's government has handled thousands of doxing cases and surveys show that there is strong support for more laws agains the practice, the spokeswoman also said.
She also insisted the new amendments would not have any bearing on free speech, and said the government "strongly rebuts any suggestion that the amendments may in any way affect foreign investment in Hong Kong."
Paul Haswell, the Hong Kong-based head of the technology, media, and telecom law practice at global law firm Pinsent Masons, said the firms' concerns about the rules changes are legitimate, as even tech companies headquartered outside of Hong Kong could see their staff there held responsible for what people post.
He also said that a broad reading of the rules suggests that an unflattering photograph or a picture of a police officer's face could even cause companies to violate the proposed amendments if they are posted with malice or an intention to cause harm.
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