Facebook, Twitter, Google pause review of Hong Kong requests for user data

Tech giants are assessing a new national security law China imposed on Hong Kong.

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Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
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Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
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Police stand guard as Tong Ying-kit, the first person charged for incitement to secession and terrorist activities under the new national security law, arrives at a court July 6 in Hong Kong. Tong, 23, is accused of deliberately driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers.

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Facebook Twitter  and Google said Monday that they're pausing the review of Hong Kong government requests for user data as they look more closely at a new national security law China imposed on the region that has curbed political expression.

The law, which took effect last week, criminalizes "secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country." Terrorist acts include arson and damaging public transportation. Those found guilty under the law could face life imprisonment.

The unusual move shows that tech companies are still trying to fully understand the law's impact on political expression and its users. Silicon Valley companies routinely receive requests for user data from governments throughout the world, including Hong Kong, as part of criminal investigations.

Hong Kong officials say the law will only target a "small minority," but human rights groups such as Amnesty International have raised concerns that police will use it to crack down on government critics. Hong Kong police have already arrested protesters during pro-democracy marches for allegedly violating the law, The New York Times reported. On Monday, the first person charged under the new law was denied bail by a Hong Kong court. Tong Ying-kit, 23, has been accused of inciting separatism and terrorism after he allegedly carried a sign saying "Liberate Hong Kong" and drove his motorbike into police, Reuters reported.

The law has also prompted activists and writers to delete their social media accounts in case the government considers what they post subversive, according to the Times. 

"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," a Facebook spokesman said in a statement.

The pause applies to the services Facebook owns, including messaging app WhatsApp and the social network Instagram.

Twitter said it's also reviewing the new law and that the company paused data and information requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately after the law went into effect. A company spokesman said Twitter has "grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law."

A Google spokeswoman on Monday said the company has suspended responses to data requests from Hong Kong since Wednesday, when the law took effect. "We'll continue to review the details of the new law," the spokeswoman added. 

The Chinese legislature swiftly passed the law, which was drafted in secrecy, a day before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China on July 1. 

Facebook, the world's largest social network, receives more government requests from Hong Kong than Twitter. From July to December 2019, Facebook received 241 government requests from Hong Kong, according to the company's transparency report. From January to June 2019, Twitter received three information requests from Hong Kong. Google received 106 requests for user information from Hong Kong in all of 2019, according to its transparency report.

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