TikTok to exit Hong Kong market within days, while other technology companies, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Google, Zoom and Twitter, suspend processing government requests for user data in the region over Beijing's new security laws.

Social media platforms and messaging apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Google and Twitter, say they will deny law enforcement requests for user data in Hong Kong, July 7, 2020.
Social media platforms and messaging apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Google and Twitter, say they will deny law enforcement requests for user data in Hong Kong, July 7, 2020. (AFP)

Popular video snippet-sharing app TikTok will stop operations in Hong Kong, joining other social media companies in warily eyeing ramifications of a sweeping national security law that took effect last week.

Major US internet companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Zoom, have all announced they have suspended the processing of requests for user data from the Hong Kong authorities while they study the new law.

The US companies' social media platforms are generally banned in China, where access is blocked by Beijing's "great firewall". Most have operated freely in Hong Kong, but will now have to determine how to comply with new rules for the city, which rights groups say threaten freedoms enjoyed for decades.

Tuesday's announcement by TikTok of its plan to quit Hong Kong is notable because the short-form video app is owned by a Chinese company but operates only outside of mainland China.

TikTok said in a statement that it had decided to halt operations “in light of recent events”.

Its parent company, ByteDance, runs a separate, similar service inside China, while saying TikTok is intended to appeal to users worldwide. Its exit means Hong Kong users, like those in mainland China, will now be cut off from the global version.

Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, said in a statement on Monday it was pausing reviews of user data requests for all of its services "pending further assessment of the National Security Law".

Google and Twitter said they had suspended their reviews of data requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately after the law went into effect last week. Zoom and Microsoft's LinkedIn issued similar statements on Tuesday.

Apple said it does not receive requests for user content directly from Hong Kong, but requires authorities there to submit requests through the US department of justice under a legal assistance treaty.

"We're assessing the new law, which went into effect less than a week ago, and we have not received any content requests since the law went into effect," Apple said in a statement.

Law under scrutiny by social networks

The social media companies say they are assessing implications of the security law, which prohibits what Beijing views as secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities or as foreign intervention in the city’s internal affairs.

Critics see the law as Beijing’s boldest step yet to erase the legal divide between the former British colony and the mainland’s authoritarian Communist Party system.

READ MORE: Facebook, WhatsApp suspend user info requests from Hong Kong government

Hong Kong was convulsed with massive, sometimes violent anti-government protests for much of last year as the former British colony's residents reacted to proposed extradition legislation, since withdrawn, that might have led to some suspects facing trial in mainland Chinese courts.

The new law criminalises some anti-Beijing slogans like the widely used “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time”, which the Hong Kong government says has separatist connotations.

The fear is that it erodes the special freedoms of the semi-autonomous city, which has operated under a “one country, two systems” framework since China took control in 1997. That arrangement has allowed Hong Kong's people freedoms not permitted in mainland China, such as unrestricted internet access and public dissent.

Telegram, whose platform has been used widely to spread anti-Beijing messages and information about the protests, understands “the importance of protecting the right to privacy of our Hong Kong users”, said Mike Ravdonikas, a spokesperson for the company.

“Telegram has never shared any data with the Hong Kong authorities in the past and does not intend to process any data requests related to its Hong Kong users until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city,” he said.

READ MORE: China's security law in Hong Kong explained

Hong Kong leader says will 'vigorously implement' security law

Hong Kong's leader Tuesday defended Beijing's new security law for the financial hub, saying it would restore stability and confidence as she vowed to "vigorously implement" the controversial legislation.

Speaking at a press conference a week after China imposed the law on the semi-autonomous city,  Chief Executive Carrie Lam combined warnings with assurances to Hong Kong's 7.5 million residents.

"The Hong Kong government will vigorously implement this law," she said. "And I forewarn those radicals not to attempt to violate this law, or cross the red line, because the consequences of breaching this law are very serious."

She denied allegations the law would stifle freedoms and hit out at what she said were "fallacies" written about its impact.

"Surely this is not doom and gloom for Hong Kong," Lam said.

"I'm sure with the passage of time ... confidence will grow in 'One Country, Two Systems' and in Hong Kong's future," she added, naming the model that allows Hong Kong to keep certain liberties and autonomy from the mainland.

The national security law is the most radical shift in how Hong Kong is run since the city was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.

The content was kept secret from Hong Kongers until the moment it was imposed one week ago, bypassing the city's legislature.

Legal analysts, critics and many western nations warn the broadly-worded categories criminalise many peaceful dissenting opinions.

READ MORE: How the world reacted to China’s national security law for Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government has made clear that advocating independence or greater autonomy for the city is now illegal, and at least ten arrests have already been made under the new law.

Hongkongers have scrubbed social media accounts, businesses have taken down protest displays while libraries and schools have removed certain books from their shelves.

Lam rejected suggestions the law had alarmed residents and said the legislation was designed to protect the freedoms of the majority.

"I have not seen widespread fears amongst Hong Kong people in the last week," she said.

"This national security law is actually relatively mild."

Her press conference came hours after the government unveiled vastly expanded powers to conduct warrantless raids and surveillance – as well as issue internet takedown notices – under the law.

These rules were announced in a document released after the inaugural meeting on Monday of a new national security commission, which is headed by Beijing's top envoy to the city.

On Tuesday, Lam said all future workings of the committee would be kept secret.

US looking at banning Chinese social media apps

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late on Monday that the United States is "certainly looking at" banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok.

"I don't want to get out in front of the President (Donald Trump), but it's something we're looking at," Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News.

US lawmakers have raised national security concerns over TikTok's handling of user data, saying they were worried about Chinese laws requiring domestic companies "to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party".
The app, which is not available in China, has sought to distance itself from its Chinese roots to appeal to a global audience and has emphasised its independence from China.

Pompeo's remarks also come amid increasing US-China tensions over the handling of the coronavirus outbreak, China's actions in Hong Kong and a nearly two-year trade war.

TikTok, a short-form video app owned by China-based ByteDance, was recently banned in India along with 58 other Chinese apps after a border clash between India and China.

Source: Reuters