By Newley Purnell 

HONG KONG -- Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. are among tech companies that have suspended processing requests for user data from Hong Kong law-enforcement agencies following China's imposition of a national-security law on the city.

"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 Facebook spokeswoman said in a Monday statement.

Earlier in the day, a spokeswoman for Facebook-owned WhatsApp said reviews would be paused "pending further assessment of the impact of the National Security Law, including formal human-rights due diligence and consultations with human-rights experts."

In separate statements, Twitter and Alphabet Inc.-owned Google said they paused all data and information requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately when the law went into effect last week. Snap Inc., owner of Snapchat, declined comment.

The moves have put U.S. technology titans on a potential collision course with Beijing, after China fast-tracked the national-security legislation that includes a provision mandating local authorities to take measures to supervise and regulate the city's previously unfettered internet.

Rules for implementing the new law announced by Hong Kong's government late Monday and set to take legal effect Tuesday, say that if police suspect an "electronic message" may endanger "national security," authorities may ask the publisher, platform, host or network service provider to remove or restrict access to it. Those who publish messages and don't comply face a hefty fine and imprisonment for one year, according to the rules.

Facebook, WhatsApp and its Instagram service, along with Twitter and Google unit YouTube, have long operated freely in Hong Kong without restrictions from China's firewall that applies to mainland internet users.

Citizens in the city have long been accustomed to using them to express political opinions and show support for protests against China's increasing influence, but in recent days some users and activists have scrubbed or deleted their social-media accounts for fear of falling afoul of the new law that came into force June 30.

Foreign businesses frequently cite the free flow of information in Hong Kong as one of the most important factors for being located in the financial hub. The city's citizens are among the most connected in the world: Some 91% of the population uses the internet, according to consulting firm We Are Social, and 98% of internet users between the ages of 16 and 64 communicate by means of social media or messaging apps.

Dubai-based Telegram Group Inc. said in a statement that was earlier reported by the Hong Kong Free Press that it doesn't 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." A representative for the messaging service said in a statement that the company "has never shared any data with the Hong Kong authorities in the past."

Hong Kong's government and police force didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Some activists and advocates for internet privacy welcomed the moves announced by tech firms.

"I think it's a good sign. They are upholding freedom of speech and user privacy," said Francis Fong, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation trade association. Mr. Fong is also a member of the standing committee on technological developments for Hong Kong's office of the privacy commissioner for personal data.

WhatsApp is popular in Hong Kong among members of the general public, Mr. Fong said, but to discuss more sensitive matters people often use services such as Telegram or Signal, another messaging service.

Hong Kong police in May said they arrested a 28-year-old man who according to evidence they displayed publicly was the owner of a Telegram channel, or group, of demonstrators for allegedly "conspiring or soliciting to commit murder" and "incitement to commit criminal damage." A police superintendent said at the time police believed the man posted messages to about 22,000 followers including material such as tutorials on making gasoline bombs and instructions for how to murder police officers.

Tech companies regularly receive requests from government entities world-wide to provide user data, for uses including law enforcement or preventing serious injury or death. Facebook in the last six months of 2019 received 241 government requests for data on users in Hong Kong, according to a company report. It produced data for 46% of the requests.

To be sure, Facebook, like other tech companies, must follow local laws in the countries where it operates, whether that is Vietnam, Singapore, Saudi Arabia or the U.S. The volume of requests received by Facebook from Hong Kong authorities is also much smaller than the more than 51,000 obtained from U.S. authorities between July and December of last year. Facebook said it produced some information on 88% of requests from U.S. authorities.

"WhatsApp believes in the right for people to have a private conversation online," the company's spokeswoman said. It isn't known how many users it has in the city of 7.5 million.

The implementation of the new law means U.S. tech companies in the city now face a delicate balancing act, analysts say. If authorities here ask them to remove user accounts or their content, they risk alienating their user bases. If they refuse, they may face criminal action and punishment.

That action could include Hong Kong authorities arresting company employees who work locally or taking control of servers, said Greg Pilarowski, an attorney and founder of the boutique law firm Piller Legal in San Francisco and Shanghai. Without a physical presence in Hong Kong, though, U.S. companies may want to wait and see how strictly the law is enforced and whether mainland China's internet firewall will be extended to Hong Kong.

"What will happen is essentially a chess game," said Mr. Pilarowski, adding that given the small size of Hong Kong, he doesn't expect potentially losing that market to be a major problem for large U.S. tech companies.

The tech companies' moves come amid rising concerns that Beijing's new rules might be used to tamp down political discussion in Hong Kong. Public libraries in recent days have removed from circulation several books by pro-democracy figures, saying the works needed to be reviewed to ensure they comply with the security law.

China imposed the law on Hong Kong as part of efforts to crush protests that ripped through the city last year, turning more violent even as the movement retained broad popular support. The law targets activities related to secession, subversion, terrorism and with foreign or external forces to endanger national security.

--Joyu Wang and Sarah E. Needleman contributed to this article.

Write to Newley Purnell at newley.purnell@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 06, 2020 16:58 ET (20:58 GMT)

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