The Chinese Government has announced a sweeping new law for Hong Kong that aims to “crack down on opposition to Beijing”. It was drafted in “unusual secrecy” and “took effect immediately, even though the public was seeing it in full only for the first time”.
Part of the law affects what people say online:
The new law mandates police censorship and covert digital surveillance, rules that can be applied to online speech across the world.
Now, the Hong Kong government is crafting web controls to appease the most prolific censor on the planet, the Chinese Communist Party.
It functionally turns any criticism about the Chinese and Hong Kong governments into “national security data”, as
Based on the law, the Hong Kong authorities have the remit to dictate the way people around the world talk about the city’s contested politics.
Battle lines are being drawn:
Many big tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Zoom and LinkedIn, have said in the past two days that they would temporarily stop complying with requests for user data from the Hong Kong authorities. The Hong Kong government, in turn, has made it clear that the penalty for noncompliance with the law could include jail time for company employees.
Meanwhile, TikTok is pulling their app from the App and Play Store rather than get into a fight – both with the Chinese Government and with public opinion – they know they can’t win:
The move comes as TikTok parent ByteDance has looked to more clearly separate TikTok, which operates outside of China, from a similar app used within mainland China. The company has said that TikTok has not shared data with the Chinese government nor would it, a position that would be difficult — if not impossible — to maintain under the new law.
This is another stage in the tech Cold War between China and the US but it feels like a big one. It’s a lot more ideological than whether or not Huawei can build 5G capabilities in your country.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter have built their platforms on the importance of free speech. It sometimes feels like a fig leaf for an unwillingness or inability to monitor their sites but it nonetheless appears sincere.
This law is a significant attack against that and it’s magnified by the streak of libertarianism that runs through Silicon Valley.
Combine all of that with the US Government’s commitment to free speech (in the abstract, if not the practical, given the President’s view of the media) and their antipathy towards the Chinese Government and you have a situation.
Meanwhile, China is a sizeable market for all US tech and internet companies. How much of that are they willing to risk?
China isn’t doing anything new or surprising. They’re a world power with an authoritarian government. More than that, they’re a world power that’s reclaiming it’s previous status on the global stage – one that they feel they lost because of Western powers (which isn’t altogether incorrect). And they have the economic power to back that up.
Every company and government that’s dependent on China for economic reasons is constantly weighing that against the actions of the Chinese Government in other areas. There are undeniable moral and ideological differences between the two groups.
Eventually, we’ll reach a moment when the former no longer trumps the latter and decision makers in the West will have to decide what they stand for.
Maybe I’m just biased to the importance of the internet, but it feels like we’ve taken a pretty big step towards that moment.