Ten days ago, I proposed a motion on protecting the freedom of information, freedom of press and freedom of the Internet in the Legislative Council, and the motion was unanimously passed. My colleague the Honorable Cyd Ho made an amendment proposing a whistleblowers protection law, protecting individuals from retaliation for uncovering malpractices of the government or public organizations in the public interest. Unfortunately that amendment wasn’t passed.
Yet, few could have imagined that such a high-profiled whistleblower case would happen right here in Hong Kong only a few days later, putting us right in the global spotlight, as ex-CIA operative and whistleblower Edward Snowden chose Hong Kong as the place he would seek refuge as he leaks the details of the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program, which collectis private data from virtually all netizens using Internet services by leading American companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and so on.
Since then, only one thing has remained obvious, that there are more questions than answers following Mr Snowden’s revelations.
Why did he choose Hong Kong to fight the likely attempts by his government to extradite him? While Mr Snowden cited Hong Kong’s tradition of freedom of speech and tolerance for dissent and protest, why would he place such confidence on our courts and us, the people of Hong Kong, to “decide his fate,” as he himself put it, in his interview with the South China Morning Post? Indeed, in the same interview, he said that the United States government had been bullying the Hong Kong government, presumably to have him turned over to the US.
Even his disclosure about PRISM and the subsequent claims that the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as certain public officials, businesses and students here have been targets of NSA hacking are so far noticeably lacking in details or evidence, and documents that he has referred to are up to now unverified and not made public. Even though one may appreciate that this approach may be by his own design, for his own maximum safety, still one must admit that Mr Snowden has done little in showing us the evidence.
Back in the US, a debate is raging among its people, questioning whether Mr Snowden is a traitor or a hero. But here in Hong Kong, I believe we need not even answer that question, and all we need to ensure is that Mr Snowden would be given his full rights and due processes, should he apply for political refugee status, once the US government files an application for his surrender.
Another debate is about privacy against security. While no one can deny that some monitoring on certain kinds of activities or targeted individuals based on a reasonable scope for justifiable counter-terrorism efforts, there is little evidence that spying on everyone indiscriminately necessarily makes our world any safer.
For me, as an advocate for the freedom of expression and the protection of personal privacy on the Internet, I look at Mr Snowden’s revelations with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, if his claims are proven to be true, he is definitely to be admired for his courage and resolve, for, as he said, that with what he has exposed, he will never feel safe again.
But on the other hand, our fight against Internet censorship in China has just become harder, as the west may have lost its moral high ground, when it comes to supporting Internet free speech and human rights advocates behind the Great Firewall of China. The censors in China may be laughing now, thinking that even the US government cannot challenge them any more on this matter.
In the end, I hope this is not going to be about the US being shown to have lowered themselves to the same level as China in engaging in surveillance against its own citizens and beyond, bur rather, for the US, and hopefully China too, eventually rising back to an acceptable level of balance between the Internet users’ rights to privacy and confidentiality, and the state’s need for proper but minimal policing, with the right level of transparency, oversight and due processes.
This is not the first time in history that a US administration has been caught red-handed in over-extending its powers to engage in covert operations, bypassing regulations and abusing the trust of its citizens. One would hope that this time again, the US government might emerge with a system that strikes a better balance between security and the people’s rights to know, in this new Internet age. If not, the world has a lot to lose.
Just as the Internet is without national borders, this fight is not just for the Americans. That’s why a number of civil society groups in Hong Kong have organized a rally this Saturday to demonstrate at the US Consulate General as well as the Hong Kong government headquarters. I think there should be three messages we must focus on.
First, as a global netizen, many of us being regular users of these major US Internet companies, our rights to private and secure communications have been violated without our knowledge and consent by the US government, and we must demand the US to tell us the truth as to what they have done, and also tell the Hong Kong government that it should be have to the responsibility to help us, Hong Kong citizens, to demand the US to tell us the truth.
Second, we must give Mr Snowden his full rights under Hong Kong law and due processes in our legal system, and not allow any political influence from China to deny Mr Snowden any of the rights he deserves under our laws. No more, but no less.
Third, a part of me worries that Mr Snowden’s revelation may backfire and let governments – especially totalitarian governments – further justify widespread surveillance activities on their citizens and other countries’ citizens alike, spreading like viruses against the freedom and privacy of the global Internet and all its netizens, instead of causing positive change for more oversight and transparency on government surveillance. Only we the people can prevent this.
To support him by endorsing the rights he deserves is to support ourselves, and to preserve our most important core values, our free flow of information, freedom of speech, tolerance of dissenting views, and our rule of law. We must act to make a difference.