Fear of Internet Censorship Hangs Over Hong Kong Protests

Hong Kong's Internet freedom faces both short- and long-term threats in the midst of a political crisis

5 min read

Items of clothing are used to make an SOS sign on the ground at the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the Hung Hom district of Hong Kong on November 20, 2019.
Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Fears about online censorship have grown since Hong Kong government officials raised the possibility of curbing Internet freedom to suppress a city-wide protest movement that has led to increasingly violent clashes between riot police and some protesters.

Unlike mainland China that has “Great Firewall” restrictions on Internet access and pervasive online censorship, Hong Kong has experienced relatively little online censorship under the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement that marked the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. That agreement has given Hong Kong residents “substantial civil liberties and the rule of law under their local constitution,” according to the independent watchdog organization Freedom House. 

But since the latest Hong Kong protest movement began over concerns about the erosion of local autonomy and freedom, the Hong Kong government has more openly discussed restricting online access to Internet services and apps.

The government has already implemented some temporary and selective online restrictions. On 31 October, Hong Kong’s High Court granted an injunction order requested by the government that bans people from “disseminating, circulating, publishing or re-publishing” online “any material or information that promotes, encourages or incites the use or threat of violence.” The injunction, which took effect until 15 November, specifically cited but did not limit itself to a Hong Kong online forum website called LIHKG and the online messaging app called Telegram, which have both proven popular as organizing tools for protesters.

But there were hints that the government might consider potentially broader measures as early as August. That’s when Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the leader of the Hong Kong government, first signaled the possibility of invoking an Emergency Regulations Ordinance that would grant the government sweeping emergency powers that include the possibility of online censorship and control of all means of communications, according to a CNN news report.

Hong Kong legislators and telecom experts warned against such possible online restrictions. The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association issued an “urgent statement” cautioning that attempts to restrict or censor Internet access would be technically impractical unless the government was willing to put Hong Kong behind a “large scale surveillance firewall.” The organization went on to warn that such a drastic move would “start the end of the open Internet of Hong Kong, and would immediately and permanently deter international businesses from positing their businesses and investments in Hong Kong.”

The effects of such measures could indeed spread beyond the protest movement to the economy, experts say. “Short-term blocking of specific websites would be unlikely to have a massive impact; an Internet shut-down, however short, would presumably be catastrophic for business confidence,” says Elise Thomas, a cybersecurity researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Barton, Australia. “A long-term Great Firewall would force other parts of the network in the region to adapt and move away from Hong Kong.”

So far, Lam has mainly invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to ban the face masks that have been widely used by protesters during both peaceful mass demonstrations—the vast majority of participants in the protests have been nonviolent—and more violent encounters. But in early October, a member of the Hong Kong Executive Council, a cabinet-level body of advisers for Lam, voiced the government’s willingness to enact online restrictions.

“At this stage, the government will consider all legal means to stop the riots,” said Ip Kwok-him, a member of the Executive Council, in comments made during a commercial radio program and reported by news outlets such as the Hong Kong Free Press. “We would not rule out a ban on the Internet."

“Internet shutdowns are becoming an increasingly common tactic used by authoritarian regimes in response to protest.”

From a practical standpoint, though, it would be extremely difficult and damaging to completely disconnect Hong Kong from the global Internet because the city is a major telecommunications hub for China and much of Asia. Hong Kong currently “hosts the biggest Internet exchange in the region” with more than 100 data centers owned by local and international companies, along with 18 international cable systems that are currently connected or scheduled to land in the city. Hong Kong also represents a conduit for more than 80 percent of all international Internet traffic headed for mainland China, according to the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association.

“Hong Kong has multiple points of connection to the global Internet; there isn’t just one spot where authorities can flip a switch and turn off the entire Internet within the country,” says Justin Sherman, a cybersecurity policy fellow at New America, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “There have been damages to or issues with undersea Internet cables linked to Hong Kong over the last decade, for example, and in many cases Hong Kong didn’t lose total access to the global net.”

It’s also unlikely that the Hong Kong government would seek to physically disconnect Internet exchange points even if it wanted to control and censor online information. Governments that have blacked out the Internet in attempts to suppress local unrest have usually applied filtering tools rather than physically unplugged telecom cables or switched off power at Internet exchange points, Sherman says.

“It's hard to see why physical access would be necessary when a much easier way would be to just put pressure on the Hong Kong ISPs (Internet Service Providers), who realistically are unlikely to flat out refuse to cooperate,” Thomas says.

If the Hong Kong government wanted to block specific websites, it would be fairly easy to do that, assuming that the government could enlist Hong Kong ISPs, Thomas explains. The latter have opposed such action, but Thomas suspects the government could compel them to cooperate.

But government attempts to block specific apps would prove far more difficult when many apps are housed in cloud services hosted by tech companies such as Amazon and Google. “If you try to block them, you also end up blocking large chunks of the rest of the Internet, as Russia did when they tried to block Telegram,” Thomas says.

Any government attempts to either selectively or broadly shut down access to Internet services could also backfire spectacularly if Hong Kong authorities want to quell violence in the city. Sherman pointed to Jan Rydzak, a researcher at Stanford University, whose work on Internet shutdowns suggests they do nothing to stymie protests and can actually increase the potential for violence as protesters shift to more chaotic strategies.

But that has not stopped countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Sudan from implementing Internet shutdowns on a national scale. Democratic India actually leads the world in implementing Internet shutdowns on a regional level in areas such as Jammu and Kashmir.

“Internet shutdowns are becoming an increasingly common tactic used by authoritarian regimes in response to protest,” Thomas says. “That said, there's a big difference between shutting down the Internet somewhere like Sudan where Internet-connected systems are primarily for communications vs. a highly connected city like Hong Kong where a huge number of non-communications devices and systems, potentially including infrastructure, healthcare etc., would also be disrupted.”

In the long run, nobody can rule out the possibility that Hong Kong’s government will build its own version of mainland China’s Great Firewall with similar levels of Internet censorship and control. That would not happen overnight, given that China spent years building “the most technically sophisticated and human-resourced Internet censorship and control system in the world,” Sherman says. But, he added, it’s possible that Hong Kong authorities might begin incorporating practices already common in mainland China, such as blacklisting foreign websites and services or requiring companies to censor online content.

“Could they implement their own Great Firewall in the long-term? Yes, absolutely, but it would obviously come at a significant cost to Hong Kong economically and socially,” Thomas says. “The question isn't whether they could do it so much as whether they'd be willing to make those sacrifices.”

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