Tech giants blink as scare tactics falter

Editorial | Mary Ma 8 Jul 2021

After the national security law was passed and enacted in Hong Kong, social media giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter did not follow Tik Tok's lead to pull their operations out of the SAR.

So it was weird when the Wall Street Journal reported that these US tech giants might quit Hong Kong altogether if the government pressed ahead with amendments to the privacy law that makes it illegal to share people's personal details online without their consent.

The maximum punishment will be one year in jail or a fine of HK$1 million.

Under the proposed amendments, the social media platforms could also be held liable, with staff facing probable punishment.

The strange part of the episode was that, if these giants have found it possible to continue to operate in the shadow of the national security law that is much broader in scope, why could they possibly be frightened by a local law that is focused on a single kind of offense?

It doesn't make sense.

According to the WSJ report, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and LinkedIn have formed an industry group called the Asia Internet Coalition.

On June 25, the group wrote to the SAR administration to express concern that the proposed anti-doxxing changes could also make them liable for the sharing of individuals' information online should the authority consider the content unlawful.

After the law is amended, privacy commissioner Ada Chung Lai-ling will have additional power to investigate breaches and execute the provisions.

In light of the current political tension over Hong Kong, these American tech giants must be simple-minded or naive if they thought Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor would chicken out in the face of their reported threat to quit Hong Kong.

It was bizarre that, after the report was widely cited around the world, these companies emerged to deny they were planning to quit the SAR.

If the WSJ report was true, the threat would only backfire on them, hardening the will of the Hong Kong administration as well as Beijing to pass and enact the expanded privacy legislation.

This was clear in Lam's public response. While saying the privacy commissioner would be happy to meet coalition representatives to address their concerns, Lam was categorical that she would press forward and even fast-track passage of the proposed changes through the legislature.

The situation is abundantly clear that the government will not concede.

Now the ball is in the tech giants' court.

It is also increasingly clear that the technology firms are looking for a ladder to climb down from following the embarrassing confrontation in which they had no chance of getting their preferred way in the new normal that is not unique to Hong Kong.

Facebook also backed down after a short standoff with Australia over Canberra's demands for social media platforms to pay news media outlets for sharing the latter's contents.

It's not the first time Mark Zuckerberg and his peers have used scare tactics.

More often than not, they blinked.

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