Leading Internet Corporations Suspend Data Requests; TikTok Ceases Function in Hong Kong

By Mariliana Fotopoulou Saturday, July 11, 2020

Leading US internet corporations Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Zoom, and Twitter revealed on July 6 that they had suspended the processing of user data requests for Hong Kong.

Facebook further elaborated its intentions of putting reviews of user data requests on pause while studying the new disciplinary law imposed by China for Hong Kong. Apple added that they are scrutinizing the newly formed law and have not received any requests for user data ever since the law was passed.

TikTok’s Response

In response to these actions, the popular China-based social media platform TikTok announced on July 7 that it would discontinue function in Hong Kong in a matter of days. The global app, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is not available for mainland China. Instead, Chinese citizens use a similar app — known as Douyin — which complies with the country’s censorship laws.

This move means that, much like mainland China, the global version will not be accessible to Hong Kong. However, according to one source, the country will not suffer much loss after this endeavor. Hong Kong residents reported on July 7 that they were already unable to access the video app.

TikTok’s Meteoric Rise

TikTok, formerly known as Musical.ly, became popular among youth in the US and India, amassing 800 million users globally as of May this year. Douyin likewise garnered upwards of 400 million users in China. Its popularity invited criticism worldwide for holding the personal data of its users and its censorship guidelines that favor rules out of Beijing.

On July 6, Hong Kong elaborated on how the new law gives the police the authority to confiscate information that poses potential threats to homeland security and penalize internet companies involved in posing the threats.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, stated in a news conference on July 7 that only time and facts will determine if the new law abuses human rights freedoms, as it gives authorities the power to imprison non-compliant employees. This will give tech companies only two options: either release confidential data or go to jail to protect an employee.

Experts voiced their opinions on the law, saying that several offices in Hong Kong may be forced to transfer if the dangers to their well-being proved imminent. Barrister Anson Wong Yu Yat said that smaller companies that prefer not to conform to the new law are also at a risk of their agents getting in trouble while visiting the city. Several Hong Kong citizens are also removing posts that they think could be seen as sensitive or controversial to protect themselves from law enforcement.

Suspending Data Requests

A Google spokesperson revealed that the company suspended the management of data requests as of July 8, and Twitter soon followed suit. Telegram, an app popular among Hong Kong activists and has functional offices across Europe and the Middle East, added on July 5 that they had also halted the process of data requests. This delay of data review also applies to Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

The US companies did not mention whether they would eventually follow parts of the law, only that they put administration requests on pause. There are chances of the law leading to the suffocation of new controls in countries.

Access to Information in China

Most major companies, namely Google, Twitter, and Facebook, are already generally blocked in China but remained functional in Hong Kong. Now, companies may have to evaluate the newly formed disciplinary rules made for the city, which critics believe are a threat to the autonomy the residents have been used to for the past decades. But as highly successful worldwide corporations, these companies will not suffer a huge loss for suspending user data requests in Hong Kong.

However, it could be said that these censorship rules have placed the internet titans in a dilemma. On the one hand, the guidelines outlaw voicing political opinions and spell out certain dissenting actions as criminal behavior.

On the other hand, these companies were already sending user data to local law enforcement regularly — an already frowned-upon practice. What they decide to do in the future remains partly unseen.

About the Author

Headshot of author Mariliana Fotopoulou

Mariliana has an MSC in consumer analytics and business strategy. She has a special interest in fast-moving industries and big data.

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