Facebook, Twitter pause data requests from Hong Kong authorities over controversial security law

Social media platforms expressed commitment to protect users' freedom of expression.

Facebook and Twitter have announced they will pause all information and data requests from Hong Kong authorities over its controversial national security law imposed by the Chinese government.

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A spokesperson for Twitter told FOX Business that all data and information requests for Hong Kong authorities were immediately paused after the law went into effect last week.

"Given the rapid pace at which the new National Security Law in China has been passed and that it was only published in its entirety for the first time last week, our teams are reviewing the law to assess its implications, particularly as some of the terms of the law are vague without clear definition," the spokesperson said. "Like many public interest organisations, civil society leaders and entities, and industry peers, we have grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law."

The social media platform added that it "cares and is committed to protecting the people using our service and their freedom of expression" and that Twitter has "a strong track record in the region of safeguarding the experience of people who use our service where it is freely available to them."

In Twitter's transparency report for January to June 2019, the company reported three account information requests from Hong Kong, though no information was produced from the requests.

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A spokesperson for Facebook told FOX Business that the company "believe[s] 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."

"We have a global process for government requests and in reviewing each individual request, we consider Facebook’s policies, local laws and international human rights standards," the company added. "We are pausing the review of government requests for user data from Hong Kong pending further assessment of the National Security Law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts.”

The company noted that it provides publicly available transparency reports on the government requests that it receives and that it has no control over the collection, storage, use or disclosure of personal information of Facebook users in or from Hong Kong.

In its transparency report for July to December of 2019, Facebook said it received 241 information requests on 257 users or accounts from Hong Kong authorities. Of those requests, Facebook said 46 percent resulted in "some data produced."

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Hong Kong police made their first arrests under the new law on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

Police said 10 people were arrested under the law, including a man with a Hong Kong independence flag and a woman holding a sign displaying the British flag and calling for Hong Kong's independence — all violations of the law that took effect Tuesday night. Others were detained for possessing items advocating independence.

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Hong Kong police said on Facebook that they arrested some 370 people on various charges, including unlawful assembly, possession of weapons and violating the new law, which was imposed in a move seen as Beijing’s boldest step yet to erase the legal firewall between the semi-autonomous territory and the mainland’s authoritarian Communist Party system.

The law, imposed following anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year, makes secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities illegal, as well as foreign intervention in the city’s internal affairs. Any person taking part in activities such as shouting slogans or holding up banners and flags calling for the city’s independence is violating the law regardless of whether violence is used.

The most serious offenders, such as those deemed to be the masterminds behind these activities, could receive a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. Lesser offenders could receive jail terms of up to three years, short-term detention or restriction.

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In response to the law, the United States Commerce and State departments took action last week to end Hong Kong's special treatment as separate from mainland China, including taking away trade benefits given to Hong Kong by suspending the availability of export license exceptions, ending exports of U.S.-origin defense equipment and imposing new restrictions on dual-use technologies.

The U.S. Senate also approved a bill last week that would impose mandatory sanctions on people or companies that back efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy, including secondary sanctions on banks that do business with anyone backing any crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, according to Reuters.

Reuters also reported that Beijing will impose visa restrictions on US individuals who are “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”

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FOX Business' Paul Best and The Associated Press contributed to this report