Tech companies have no clue how to handle Hong Kong’s new censorship law

Caught between China and its citizens, global tech companies are struggling to find a helpful middle ground.

Activist Agnes Chow is lit by harsh lights as she's interviewed in Hong Kong.
Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It’s been a little more than a month since China instituted an abstract new censorship law in Hong Kong, and early reports show the territory’s crackdown techniques have been harsh and all-encompassing. The New York Times reports that police have been using draconian tactics, such as pinning Hong Konger Tony Chung’s head to a stairwell wall to try to use Apple’s Face ID to unlock his phone.

When China imposed the security law earlier this summer, U.S. tech companies — including bigwigs like Facebook, Twitter, and Google — almost immediately said they wouldn’t comply. The law grants law enforcement officials blanket access to Hong Kong citizens’ social media accounts if they’re suspected of posting anything that “endangers national security.”

A month later, American social media companies are finding the issue much more complicated to navigate than simply refusing to comply. Hong Kong had, until recently, been an oasis of calm, a defender of freedom of speech, and the one place affiliated with China that still had a relatively open internet. In the span of just a week, Hong Kong’s exceptional status has fallen to pieces.

Global internet companies are caught between opposing loyalties: that of Hong Kong’s residents and that of the country that now, despite ongoing protests, governs them.

The crackdown continues — The stories coming out of Hong Kong about how, exactly, the government is enforcing its new security laws are disturbing, to say the least. Tony Chung, the Hong Kong resident whose head was shoved against a wall as cops attempted to break into his phone, is accused of writing a post on Facebook calling for Hong Kong independence. Later, Chung’s friends saw that his Facebook account was active, despite the fact that he had been detained and had no access to the internet. Chung believes law enforcement somehow broke into his account, potentially compromising his contacts in the process.

Chung’s story is only the beginning. Agnes Chow, a local politician, discovered that strange men had begun watching her house in shifts. She was arrested this month and later found out cops had also installed infrared surveillance cameras near her doorstep.

Chow and Chung are only two of the more notable and reported instances of how law enforcement in Hong Kong is using harsh tactics to force compliance with the new security law.

Compliance is compulsory — Complying with the Chinese government’s censorship law is a catch-22 for global tech companies. It’s not as simple as blindly following the government’s decisions — especially when those decisions have the potential to cause harm.

Tech companies are taking varied and creative approaches to deal with the new law. Facebook and Twitter have outright cut off data-sharing with local authorities. A Google spokesperson, meanwhile, confirmed that the company has also refused to produce data for Hong Kong authorities since the law was enacted. Yahoo has gone further still, changing its terms of service so users in Hong Kong are protected under American law.

Facebook a friend — Facebook is also allowing people to appoint other legal administrators to their accounts. That way, a friend or confidant can coordinate with Facebook to shut the account down in the case of an arrest. Facebook was able to complete such a maneuver with Agnes Chow’s account after her arrest.

China’s so-called “digital dragnet” has come for Hong Kong, and its consequences are messy and far-reaching. Tech companies are doing what they can to allow people to utilize their platforms for connection and organization without upsetting the Chinese government. It’s unclear how long they’ll be able to keep up that balancing act before it comes crashing down.