Hong Kong forces Tiananmen Vigil Group to remove online presence


HONG KONG — Hong Kong police have forced one of the city’s best-known activist groups to cut its online presence, in the latest sign of how officials can use a powerful national security law to restrict online speech and impose Chinese-style internet censorship .

The group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, has organized annual vigils commemorating the 1989 government massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing for decades. Even as the central Chinese government tried to erase the memory of the massacre from the mainland, the alliance operated freely in Hong Kong, which as a former British colony was promised civil liberties, absent from the rest of China.

The group’s social media pages have openly criticized the government. For example, the “About” section on Facebook said it was dedicated to “the pursuit of democracy, freedom and human rights” in China.

But the security law, which the central government imposed on Hong Kong last year to quell months of pro-democracy protests, allows officials to order the removal of online content deemed to endanger national security. bring.

In a Facebook post on Thursday, the alliance said police had appealed to the law and ordered it to remove “designated electronic content,” and in response, would suspend its website, Facebook page and other social media outlets. delete accounts that night.

In a statement, police declined to comment on specific cases, but cited the powers conferred by the security law, noting that they “apply only” in cases that could threaten national security.

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

It wasn’t the first time Hong Kong police had used the law to curb the once free flow of information online. In January, authorities appeared to temporarily block access to a website that disclosed private information about police officers and other government supporters, a practice known as doxxing.

In May, police successfully asked Wix, an Israeli website hosting company, to take down a site built by a group of exiled pro-democracy activists. Wix later apologized and turned off course.

Nor was it the first attempt by the authorities to suppress the alliance, which has become one of the most high-profile targets under the law. For the past two years, the government has banned the group from holding its annual vigil. Many of its leaders have been arrested or imprisoned, and some are charged with subversion under security law. Police have also asked for details about the group’s funding and membership.

Still, the alliance’s forced removal was the most high-profile example yet of police curbing online expression. As much of Hong Kong’s society has been transformed to look more like the mainland, some fear the city’s digital spaces will be too. On the mainland, Facebook, Twitter and many Western news channels have been blocked, and an army of censors is working around the clock to remove sensitive content.

Critics have also pointed to plans by the Hong Kong government to create what it calls a anti-doxing bill, although experts have called the language overly broad and open to abuse. Civil servants have also suggested targeting “fake news,which many say can be used to silence critical voices of the government.

On Thursday, the city’s largest pro-Beijing political party proposed to follow the lead of the central government by introducing stricter controls on video games, including setting time limits on minors, registering a real name and banning pornographic content. .

“The hunting season for the open internet is starting, I think,” said Lokman Tsui, a Hong Kong-based fellow at Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity watchdog. “They went after the media, after the educational institutions, the unions. But now it seems time to ‘fix the internet’.”

In particular, analysts noted that the injunction targeting the alliance was the first known case of police using the security law to force a group to delete posts themselves, rather than going through service providers like Wix.

The security law allows for both scenarios. But major internet companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, have expressed concerns about the security law and pledged to at least temporarily stop fulfilling requests from the Hong Kong government for user data. Some even threatened to withdraw from the city over concerns that the planned anti-doxxing law would hold the companies’ employees accountable for the actions of users, although the government said those concerns were unfounded?.

By targeting the users, police were able to bypass the platforms, said Glacier Kwong, a Hong Kong digital rights activist now in Germany. obtaining a PhD in data protection.

“Most online service providers are huge companies in the US or abroad,” said Ms. Kwong. “But for individual civil society groups or individuals, they don’t have the power to compete with the huge hold of the national security law.”

Ms Kwong said it was unlikely Hong Kong would set up such a digital firewall on the mainland any time soon, blocking sites like Facebook outright. Authorities were still presenting an open front to the world, she said. But she said she expected more removal requests from the police.

“They found it useful against one of the biggest groups in Hong Kong, so then of course they will try to use it for other groups so they can achieve a very clean internet,” she said.

The security law has already left Hong Kong’s digital spaces — which became raucous forums for organizing, applauding and criticizing the government during the 2019 protests — significantly bare than before. In the weeks after the law was passed, social media users rushed to take down critical posts, and pro-democracy news outlets took down opinion columns.

Radio Television Hong Kong, a government broadcaster once known for fiercely independent reporting, has removed from YouTube shows that are more than a year old. When Apple Daily, the city’s leading pro-democracy newspaper, folded under government pressure in June, it wiped out its entire online archive.

The alliance, before closing its Facebook page, opened a new one. But it’s unclear to what extent the group, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment, will replicate its past online presence. So far, the page contains only one message, explaining the police order to delete the previous profile.

The “About” section of the page is blank.

Joy Dong contributed research

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