Experts say a contentious Hong Kong law against online doxxing that took effect in October will be used to punish opposition figures for revealing personal information about police and authorities, as well as infringe on people’s privacy.
The law criminalizes online behavior that involves unauthorized disclosure of personal data -- including names, identity card numbers, phone numbers, photos and addresses -- even if the disclosure does not cause harm. Its aim, the government said is to “combat malicious doxxing acts that have become more rampant in recent years, so as to protect the personal data privacy of the general public.”
Offenders are subject to fines of as much as $13,000 and five years’ imprisonment.
“Since 2019, doxxers have attacked those of different political stances through the indiscriminate disclosure of their personal data, in effect weaponizing the personal data concerned,” a government spokesperson said in an Oct. 8 statement.
Doxxing has targeted both police and officials on one hand and anti-government protesters on the other during anti-government protests since 2019, but the government has publicly condemned only doxxing against police and officials.
“Doxxing activities towards counsel, judges, legislators and other persons involved in the administration of justice were found to be on the rise in 2020, especially when cases relating to the 2019 incidents were heard. Such unlawful acts must be curtailed,” Hong Kong’s top law official, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, wrote in a statement in March.
The law now allows authorities to access electronic devices of any suspect without a warrant.
'Unduly severe' penalties
Observers say they are concerned that authorities will use enforcement of the law to infringe on people’s privacy.
Lowell Dittmer, professor of social science at the University of California Berkeley, slammed the law for its “unduly severe” penalties. The law “added to the repressive armory of the national security law with a measure disguised as protection of human dignity,” Dittmer wrote to VOA.
Dittmer said the law could be used improperly to obtain people’s information.
“In the course of enforcing [the law] in compliance with the national security law, they [authorities] will no doubt use every possible means of covert surveillance,” he said.
Dongsheng Zang, associate professor of law at the University of Washington, called the law “an overreaction” by the government.
“The ordinance was enacted in the name of protecting privacy; but it may end up encroaching more people’s privacy, due to the broad powers granted to the Privacy Commissioner,” Zang wrote to VOA, referring to Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner for personal data, whose office oversees implementation of, and compliance with, 1996 privacy legislation, and will be given new power to enforce the anti-doxxing law.
“Many citizens and residents in Hong Kong will lose their privacy,” he said.
In July, the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association whose members include major internet and technology companies, voiced its opposition to the doxxing measure in a strongly worded statement.
“Subjecting intermediaries and their local subsidiaries to criminal investigations and prosecution for doxxing offences under the proposed amendments is a completely disproportionate and unnecessary response to doxxing,” the group said.
'Free and open internet' critical
The law also applies outside of Hong Kong, giving officers the power to send a cessation notice to overseas internet service providers, regardless of whether the disclosure is made in the city or not.
Enforcing the law overseas could be difficult, Zang said.
“To overseas internet service providers, if they do not have offices in Hong Kong or their Hong Kong offices have no control of content, the privacy commissioner can do very little. Enforcement would be limited,” he said.
Local staff of overseas platforms should not be responsible for such disclosures, the industry association said.
“For most if not all of the overseas platforms, their online services are provided by their respective offshore global or regional headquarter companies, as opposed to their local subsidiaries in Hong Kong.”
“A free and open internet has been critical for Hong Kong’s development as an innovation and technology center,” the group added.
Officials denied the law will erode freedom of speech, and said it will only “concern unlawful doxxing acts” in a July statement.
The enforcement unit added that there were over 5,700 doxxing-related cases between June 2019 and May of this year.
The industry association had threatened to stop offering services to Hong Kong if the bill was passed, but services are still operating.