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How Hong Kong is the latest minefield for tech companies

Tech firms have to decide whether they want to take on China or not

For decades, Hong Kong has been a haven of freedom and democracy. Under the ‘one country, two systems’ regime introduced when the United Kingdom ceded control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, its people have been relatively free and able to do whatever they want. As a result, tech companies felt willing to offer their services to its people, even when they steered clear of mainland China.

But in recent years – and particularly in recent weeks – things have changed. The constitutional principle of one country, two systems has been eroded and eventually removed entirely. Hong Kong is run by China, as China, despite the protestations of many of its people. And that’s causing headaches for the tech giants who set up shop there.

Should I stay or should I go?

For almost the entire time that Hong Kong has been run as a special administrative region of China, tech companies have started playing an ever-increasingly important role in our lives. Things we would once have done physically, we now do digitally and we tend to rely on online services for every facet of our lives. 

Tech companies have interwoven themselves into everything we do, and they have an enormous amount of personal data on us. But the increasing encroachment of mainland China on Hong Kong in the last few years has given those tech companies cause for concern, and a difficult decision to make: should they stick with Hong Kong, or should they go?

The latter is the easier decision on the face of it. Leaving Hong Kong, as TikTok has done this month, is a cut and dry decision. Since 1 July, when Hong Kong passed a new national security law that rolled many of the centrally-controlled rules of China into Hong Kong, tech companies have found themselves in a quandary. Should they decide to stay, they have to develop a company-wide policy as to what they’ll do when China asks them for data.

The law and the principle

Under the law, digital service providers would have to provide information to law enforcement or police if requested. In a highly censorious society that has been trying for several months to identify those involved in pro-democracy protests on the island state, that could seriously endanger many people’s lives. 

Yet it is the rule of the land, technically. It’s easy to imagine some of the challenges that will result if Beijing-backed authorities ask for sensitive information from a tech giant about people using their service that the company doesn’t want to hand over.

For that reason, tech companies are carefully considering their options in Hong Kong. Facebook has put a pause on any requests for data in Hong Kong until it fully understands the ramifications of the national security law. It’ll be consulting with human rights experts along the way. A spokesperson has told reporters: “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions.”

A rock and a hard place

Twitter, Google, Zoom, LinkedIn, Telegram, and Apple have all followed suit. Telegram is particularly important because it’s where many pro-democracy protesters have been organizing their disputes with the China-backed authorities. 

But at some point, companies have to move on from a policy based on a holding pattern. They have to decide which is more important: the principles of freedom and democracy, or keeping an audience in Hong Kong. Either way, there are very few winners.

Instead, there are almost solely losers. The biggest of them, the people of Hong Kong themselves, who stand to lose either their access to some of the world’s biggest apps or their freedom to say and do what they want.

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