Medium is message in US visa vetting

Editorial | Mary Ma 4 Jun 2019

If there's something that may stem online abuse, it's probably the United States' new requirement for nearly all visa applicants to hand over social media information and mobile numbers for security screening.

That's ironic since tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have all vowed to keep their internet platforms clean of violent, bullying or abusive content, but have never been close enough to claiming success.

Social media bullying has long been a cause for concern. Even though this isn't what the US State Department is targeting, the effect of the controversial measure is that it will dampen such online misbehavior.

That's the silver lining that civil rights groups should agree on.

The new requirement came into force this month, more than a year after it was announced by US President Donald Trump's administration. About 700,000 immigrant and 14 million non-immigrant visa applicants are estimated to be affected each year.

It's a vast expansion of existing checks the Trump administration has introduced since assuming office, to subject visitors from dangerous regions to rigorous background inspection.

The expansion is bound to be annoying as nobody likes to share private conversations with strangers. Despite protests by critics, it is unlikely for the State Department to reduce the amount of information it wants.

The impact on travel would be clearer this summer when local families normally take advantage of the school summer holidays to travel overseas.

But I reckon the actual impact would be limited, since those wishing to see the Grand Canyon or try their luck at one of the casinos in Las Vegas will continue to travel to America, while students planning to study over there won't change their plans because of the new disclosure requirement.

By the same token, immigrants aspiring to live in the United States will continue to submit their applications regardless of the additional information they're now asked to provide.

An education consultant quoted by The Standard in yesterday's report couldn't be more sensible: students should start paying attention to content in their social media accounts. His advice for young people not to share radical topics was warranted.

It's never too late to start learning to use social media responsibly, which should have always been the case in the first place.

The United States is among the most popular travel destinations for Hongkongers. While the impact is to be assessed, the State Department said it is constantly working to improve the screening process to protect US citizens while supporting legitimate travel to America.

From the consumers' perspective, it's always in their interest for the process to be friendly, while the national security goal is achieved. As the Americans improve the procedure, they should make the process friendlier to follow.

The United States is the first country to make the requirement standard, but similar practices do exist at borders elsewhere, like in Canada, Australia and Britain where travelers acting suspiciously may be asked to hand over e-mails, for example, to allow immigration officers to establish visitors aren't entering to seek employment.

Will other countries follow suit to standardize the requirement? I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.

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