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New national security law in China and internet freedom in HK

Last week, I attended the 2015 Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum in Macau, the main theme of which was “Changes in internet governance: facilitating sustainable development”.

During the forum a lot of the discussions were focused on China.

The people of Hong Kong are lucky, because, unlike our mainland counterparts, we have access to an internet free of censorship, and we don’t have to worry about getting into trouble for having said or posted anything online.

On July 1, the Chinese government promulgated its new National Security Law, which for the first time associates cybersecurity with national security.

On the surface, this new law aims to establish “sovereignty over the internet space”, but the law is in fact intended to provide legal justification for Beijing’s moves to further tighten its grip on ideology on the internet.

We must not overlook the implications of Chinese-style “cybersovereignty” for the freedom of speech to which the people of Hong Kong are entitled.

Article 11 of the new law stipulates that Hong Kong and Macau have the obligations to fulfill their own responsibilities to safeguard national security, the first time Hong Kong has been highlighted in the provisions of a mainland law.

Although the legislation is couched only in general terms, and the Hong Kong government has published a statement saying the new National Security Law will not be enforced in the city, the sweeping law, which gives absolute priority to national security and covers a wide range of areas in society, is still like a dagger pointed at the heart of Hong Kong.

The new law puts a lot of emphasis on internet security, granting the authorities extensive and vague jurisdiction to monitor the dissemination of online information, and giving the state the power to protect “national internet space sovereignty, security and development interests”.

Article 59 stipulates that China should build a comprehensive mechanism of national security censorship and regulation covering foreign investment, key information technologies, products and services, particular materials, and basically all items that might have potential risk for national security.

The law also gives the state the power to further tighten its control of the internet by monitoring website content, private email and the login history of internet users, blocking internet protocol addresses and screening online messages and keywords for criminal activity.

In other words, what the Chinese government is doing is playing ideological police and intensifying its crackdown on political dissent in the cyberworld, and the law is so extensive in both wording and scope that we are in effect looking at a massive national security onslaught.

As the Chinese government is drafting a new internet security law, it appears the mainland authorities will continue to tighten their grip on the internet by imposing strict regulations on computer software and hardware providers and operators of online platforms.

With billions of dollars in business profits at stake, it is expected that the majority of local and foreign technology companies will give in to government pressure or even introduce self-censorship of their own accord to please the authorities.

Hong Kong is probably the last remaining place on Chinese soil where people can still enjoy free access to the internet, and this is something that we must stand up for.

Rather than being worried about whether the new National Security Law will apply to Hong Kong, I believe we should instead be more vigilant to any attempt to compromise our freedom to use the internet under the pretext of integrating with internet governance and information technology development on the mainland.

We should never take the freedom that we are enjoying for granted.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 6.

Translation by Alan Lee

Office Of Hon. Charles Mok, Legislative Councillor (IT)