Sunday, 15 February 2015

HK Police Censoring the Net?

Did you know in Hong Kong that the police can make requests to delete online posts in the city?

While some should be taken down, such as "obscene articles, phishing websites, and accessing a computer with criminal/dishonest intent", there is an uncomfortable surge in the number of requests since the Occupy protests in late September.

In 2011, there were 12 requests, 23 the following year, 30 in 2013 and 29 until September last year. When Occupy began until February this year, there were 101 requests alone.

There are concerns these police requests to take down posts are aimed at political activists, after a 23-year-old man was arrested on charges of "criminal/dishonest intent" in October after posting on an online thread about protest plans.

Jennifer Zhang, a researcher with the Hong Kong Transparency Report at the University of Hong Kong finds the jump in numbers concerning.

"It's highly possible that police are abusing their law enforcement power to conduct online censorship. There is a great lack of transparency here. In fact, according to a few forums I've been talking to, police often 'order' them to take down users' posts by phone or email," she said.

When questioned in the Legislative Council about this, the Hong Kong government defended the police's actions, saying "the existing mechanism functions effectively".

Only when lawmaker Charles Mok, who represents the information technology functional constituency did the police give the number of 101 requests by the police to take down online posts. This compares to the total of 65 requests from 2011 to 2013.

"It is a controversial area of law enforcement," says Zhang. "There has to be a balance between criminal prevention and freedom of speech, and that decision should not be made by the police alone."

However, when Mok requested an independent body scrutinize the process, the government declined.

He says there is a need for transparency and public scrutiny to allay the public's fears of privacy concerns.

The police have also requested online user information, such as emails and IP addresses. There were 4,234 such cases last year.

"Again, there's no clear legal regulation, independent oversight or user notification in place," Zhang said.

She says the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance is very vague when it comes to protecting user privacy, thus allowing the police to request information from service providers for very simple and general "criminal prevention" purposes.

With the growing number of requests to delete posts online, one can only imagine that soon Hong Kong may have its own army of censors trolling the internet for anything remotely subversive. And it could also signal the rise of the city's version of wumao or "50-Cent Party", who are hired by the Chinese government to comment favourably about Beijing. Surely they won't get 50 mao, or 50 cents for each comment?

That just means that talk is cheap.

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