Fears for Hong Kong’s free internet as ‘Great Firewall’ approaches | Business and Economics

For decades, Hong Kong’s internet operated outside China’s vast army of censorship, guaranteeing the free flow of information that cemented the city’s status as a global business hub.

Gradually, this is beginning to change as a small but growing list of websites goes dark under a large-scale crackdown on dissent.

Creeping censorship casts uncertainty over the future of the city’s free and open internet, attractive to international businesses, which is used by Beijing’s national security law (NSL) to crush virtually all political opposition and silence critical media. civil society.

“Until now, in cases of questionable national security law repeals, the police have not even given any guidance on whether to apply NSL to ‘disappearing’ websites,” said former pro-democracy politician Charles Mok Kong, who represents Hong Kong’s information technology sector. told Al Jazeera.

“There’s no reason to believe it won’t happen more often,” Mok said, predicting that the concept of threatening national security could be expanded to include topics such as Hong Kong’s controversial “zero COVID” pandemic policy.

On Monday, Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based group that advocates for freedoms in the city, said its website was unavailable through some networks in the Chinese territory.

Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, said the blocking of the site, if upheld, would be a “serious blow to internet freedom” and raise fears that Beijing plans to put Hong Kong behind the “Great Firewall”. because Google, Facebook and Twitter are banned.

The Hong Kong Police Force said it does not comment on individual cases but conducts operations “based on the actual circumstances and in accordance with the law”.

The list of blocked sites is growing

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

Previous websites blocked in the city include HK Charter 2021, a pro-democracy website compiled by exiled Hong Kong activists, and HKChronicles, a website used by activists against police and pro-Beijing activists.

Under the NSL, authorities can order internet providers to remove content that constitutes or promotes subversion, secession, collusion with foreign powers or acts of terrorism, all of which are vaguely defined. The law, which has jailed more than 150 people, mostly for speech crimes, has been roundly condemned by human rights activists, civil society leaders and foreign governments.

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

While the scope of internet control in the city has so far remained narrow, the acceleration of censorship will deal another blow to the former British colony’s image as a good place to do business, already strained by the world’s toughest pandemic. Rules. The Chinese territory, known for decades as “Asia’s World City,” is facing an exodus of firms and talent as a growing number of residents tire of lengthy quarantines, travel bans and even strict social distancing rules with no end in sight. the world is learning to live with COVID-19.

Hong Kong’s open internet has long attracted foreign businesses [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 access to the Internet is very important for doing business. However, only 46 percent said they hoped to remain unrestricted in Hong Kong over the next three years.

“In general, the free flow of information is very important to international companies and individual workers in Hong Kong,” AmCham president Tara Joseph told Al Jazeera. “Right now, people believe they have strong access to the information they need, but there’s concern about the future.”

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Police Force told Al Jazeera that the NSL only applied for material that “threatened national security or was likely to constitute a crime threatening national security”.

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

While refusing to confirm cases of internet censorship, Hong Kong authorities have signaled their intention to impose further restrictions on the flow of information, including a law to combat so-called “fake news”. The city’s government has also promised to draft its own national security law to close “loopholes” in legislation imposed by Beijing.

Mok, a former politician, said it may be difficult to import mainland Chinese-style wholesale internet censorship to Hong Kong “given that the telecom regulatory framework is completely different and many global and local firms are licensed to provide overseas communications services”.

However, according to him, a “pseudo firewall” is already being installed.

“The free flow of information is important for business, investment, business and the economy,” Mok said.

“Even the government has often said that the free flow of information has been one of Hong Kong’s strengths in the past, and it should be no different now,” he said. “I think businesses are concerned about it, but few are speaking out for fear of repercussions.”

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