Surge in web posts taken down by Hong Kong police sparks censorship fears

Force insists content is criminal but activists say they are targeting online political organising as rise coincided with Occupy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 February, 2015, 4:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 February, 2015, 8:20am

A dramatic surge in the number of online posts destroyed by the Hong Kong police in recent months has fuelled fears of internet censorship and abuse of power.

Figures released last week showed that the force "requested" the removal of more online content in the past four months than in the previous four years combined.

The surge in figures coincided with the student-led Occupy Central movement, which typically used social media and online forums to organise events and demonstrations.

The police said the information requested for removal since October mainly involved "obscene articles, phishing websites and accessing a computer with criminal/dishonest intent". They did not say how many requests were made for each offence.

The latter of these offences has been the subject of controversy due to its recent application to online discussion boards - and not just their use by fraudsters or other cybercriminals.

In a move that activists believe was designed to send a message to demonstrators, a 23-year-old man was arrested on the charges in October after posting an online thread discussing protest plans.

"It's highly possible that police are abusing their law enforcement power to conduct online censorship," said Jennifer Zhang, a researcher with the Hong Kong Transparency Report at the University of Hong Kong.

"There's a great lack of transparency here. In fact, according to a few forums I've been talking to, police often 'order' them to take down users' posts by phone or email," Zhang said.

Police did not respond to an inquiry about concerns over censorship, but - in response to questions from a lawmaker on Wednesday - the government defended its procedures and said "the existing mechanism functions effectively".

The development also comes amid an "inexorable rise" in the broader number of technology crimes in the city and the establishment of a new cybercrime bureau by police commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung.

In response to questions from lawmaker Charles Mok, of the information technology functional constituency, the government on Wednesday disclosed that since October the police had made 101 requests to websites and service providers to delete content, such as posts on forums.

This figure compares with 29 requests in the preceding nine months of last year and a total of 65 requests in the previous three years combined.

"It is a controversial area of law enforcement. There has to be a balance between criminal prevention and freedom of speech, and that decision should not be made by the police alone," Zhang said.

The removal of online posts by the police is a legal grey area. The force is unwilling to reveal how many, if any, of its requests were supported by court orders.

The government also declined a request from Mok for independent oversight and scrutiny of the process.

"Since the existing mechanism functions effectively, we do not think it is necessary to establish a separate department or put in place separate procedures," said secretary for commerce and economic development Gregory So Kam-leung.

But Mok said many activists believed such police operations against "computer crime" impeded freedom of expression.

"Better transparency and public scrutiny is necessary to gain trust and ease privacy concerns," he added.

Another area of contention is police requests for online user information, such as email and IP addresses. Last year, there were 4,234 such cases.

"Again, there's no clear legal regulation, independent oversight or user notification in place," Zhang said.

"The only law that protects user privacy, the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, is very vague in this regard. It allows police to request user information from service providers for a very simple and general 'criminal prevention' purpose," she added.

Meanwhile, customs chiefs last week announced the department would this year roll out a SocNet Monitoring System to enhance "online surveillance of illegal activities of selling counterfeit goods or infringing work on social network platforms".

A spokesperson for the department said the system would not monitor private messages on Facebook or WeChat.