FILE PHOTO: Police try to disperse media and pro-democracy supporters after authorities denied permission for a protest rally during the 24th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule, on the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

A representative industry group says that proposed anti-doxing rules could expose local staff to criminal charges

Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google privately advised the Hong Kong government they would cease offering their services in the area if authorities make planned changes to the data-protection laws. This could expose them to liability for maliciously sharing individuals’ personal information online.

An industry group, which includes internet companies, sent a letter to inform them that they are concerned about the possibility of their employees being subject to criminal investigations or prosecutions based on what the users post online. Doxing is the practice of posting personal information online to harass others.

In May, Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau proposed changes to its data-protection laws. It said they were necessary to combat doxing. This practice was rampant during the 2109 protests. These proposals include punishments up to one million Hong Kong dollars (equivalent to about $128,800) and five years imprisonment.

“The only way to avoid the sanctions for businesses would be to stop investing and offering the services to Hong Kong,” stated the previously unreported June 25th letter from the Singapore-based Asia Internet Coalition. The Wall Street Journal reviewed the letter.

As Beijing tightens its grip on the city and cracks down on political dissent, tensions have developed between some of America’s most powerful companies and Hong Kong authorities. Last year, American tech companies and other tech companies announced that they would suspend processing requests from Hong Kong law enforcement agencies due to China’s imposition a national security law.

Jeff Paine, Asia Internet Coalition’s managing Director, stated in a letter to Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner. He said that although his group and members oppose doxing, the proposed amendments’ vague language could indicate that local firms and their employees could be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution for doxing offenses.

The letter stated that such a response would be “completely disproportionately and unneeded.” The proposed amendments could also curtail freedom of expression and penalize “innocent acts” of sharing information online, the letter stated.

The Coalition suggested that violations should be more clearly defined and requested a videoconference in order to discuss the matter.

The Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data spokeswoman acknowledged receipt of the letter. She stated that new rules needed to deal with doxing which she said “has tested both the morality and the law’

Since 2019, the government has dealt with thousands of cases related to doxing. She said that surveys by the public and organizations indicate strong support for additional measures to stop the practice. During months of protests for democracy in 2019, police officers and opposition leaders were heavily doxed.

The spokeswoman stated that “the amendments will have no bearing on freedom speech,” as it is protected by law. She also said that the amendments clearly define the offenses. She stated that the government “strongly refutes any suggestion” that the amendments could in any way impact foreign investment in Hong Kong.

Reps from Facebook, Twitter, and Google declined comment beyond acknowledging that it was sent by the Coalition. Analysts estimate that they employ at least 100 people in Hong Kong. However, the companies do not disclose how many employees they have.

China’s crackdown against dissent has forced many Hong Kongers to stop using social media and to self-censor after a series of arrests for online comments.

Hong Kong is home to about 7.5 million people, so it’s not a large market. However, foreign companies often point out the free flow information in Hong Kong as one of the key reasons they are located in the financial center.

As global businesses consider leaving the financial centre for more welcoming business climates, the tech giants have sent a letter to them.

Paul Haswell, a Hong Kong-based head for the technology, media and telecom law practice at Pinsent Masons, stated that the anti-doxing amendments would be presented to the city’s Legislative Council. A bill is expected be approved before the end of this legislative calendar year.

Mr. Haswell stated that the concerns of tech companies about the proposed rules were legitimate. He said that technology companies with headquarters outside Hong Kong and operations in the city could be held responsible for the postings of their employees based on the language of the legislation.

If posted with malice or intent to cause harm, even a unflattering photograph of someone taken in public or of a police officer’s facial expression could be a violation of the rules, he stated.

He said that the new rules could make it “potentially a risk to post any relating to another person on the internet” if they are not handled with common sense.