Hong Kong’s constitutional affairs minister opened the debate on the city’s anti- doxxing bill on Wednesday by insisting that it struck a “reasonable balance” between combating malicious data leaks and safeguarding residents’ fundamental rights and freedoms. Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai was seeking to counter mounting criticism of the bill on the same day advocacy group Internet Society Hong Kong added its voice to a chorus of concerns that the legislation grants overly broad powers to the city’s privacy commissioner and could lead to “revenge-style prosecutions”. Speaking at a hearing in the legislature for the first debate on the bill, Tsang reiterated that the proposal was not intended to target online platform service providers, and maintained a coalition of global tech giants that had also criticised the law was still willing to operate in Hong Kong. “We have explained in detail to the coalition about the law’s intention and provisions. The law only targets those who maliciously leaked others’ personal information, not service providers,” he said. Hong Kong’s proposed anti-doxxing law far too broad and vague, critics argue Earlier this month, the Asia Internet Coalition, which represents the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, warned that the anti-doxxing bill’s broad wording represented a potential barrier to trade and would discourage them from investing or offering their services in Hong Kong. The coalition told the Post it had no further comments about the bill. But a US government official on Thursday morning said they had noted the concerns raised by the coalition and the wider business community. “We call on the Hong Kong government to ensure that the new legal [powers] in the proposed amendment to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance in no way infringe on the rights and freedoms guaranteed to people in Hong Kong in the Basic Law, including freedom of speech,” the official said. “Transparency, openness, and the free flow of information are the strongest foundation for both freedom and prosperity.” Tsang also sought to assuage concerns that employees of internet platforms could be prosecuted for failing to comply with orders to take down content deemed to constitute doxxing, saying only staff with the ability to remove such material would be asked to do so. “If the local staff of these firms don’t have the authority to take down the content, they don’t need to worry about the legal obligation,” he said. However, in a statement on Wednesday, the Internet Society Hong Kong raised concerns of its own over the vague wording of the bill, saying it would be vulnerable to abuse and could easily become a tool for suppressing dissent. Even if we need to block certain websites, that only refers to those containing doxxing content Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang “The bill has given the privacy commission criminal investigative powers and the power to request third parties for compliance. This excessive power is unprecedented and also unheard of in other countries,” it said. “We believe that the bill will easily be abused and become a means to crush dissent and pre-empt whistle-blowers. It will definitely have a negative impact on the free flow of information.” But Tsang insisted on Wednesday that the law had “nothing to do with blocking the free flow of information on the internet”. “Even if we need to block certain websites, that only refers to those containing doxxing content,” he said. Tsang added that the legislation safeguarded fundamental rights enshrined in the Basic Law, and said journalists would be provided with a defence against prosecution for news reporting activities. “This bill has struck a reasonable balance between upholding freedom of speech and protecting people’s privacy,” he said. “People’s rights and freedoms, including free speech, free flow of information and lawful news reporting activities, will not be affected.” Tsang also said there was a need to enhance the powers of the privacy commissioner in the wake of a flood of doxxing cases that began during the months of anti-government protests in 2019. The commissioner handled more than 5,800 doxxing complaints between June 2019 and last month. “Some people have questioned if this bill serves as an indefinite expansion of the public powers. I would like to ask … is it right to subject those who hold a dissenting political view to doxxing violence and bullying?” he said. The bill, which would amend the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, is expected to be passed before the current Legco session ends in October. It will empower the privacy commissioner to carry out criminal investigations and initiate prosecutions for doxxing, defined as the practice of maliciously leaking others’ personal information. Under its two-tier structure, anyone who discloses an individual’s personal data without consent “with an intent to cause specified harm or being reckless” about the potential for harm faces a maximum penalty of two years in jail and a fine of HK$100,000 (US$12,875) for each summary conviction. Those convicted of the law’s second-tier indictable offence face even stiffer penalties: up to five years in jail and a fine of HK$1 million. Hong Kong to lower threshold for prosecution under new anti-doxxing law “Specified harm” includes harassment, molestation, threats, intimidation, and physical and psychological injury which could cause a victim to be concerned about their safety or damage to their property. The bill would also empower the privacy commissioner to apply for a warrant to enter and search premises and seize materials for investigative purposes, and even access an electronic device without a warrant. Obstructing or resisting a search or an arrest would be an offence under the law. In its statement, the Internet Society Hong Kong warned that the vague definitions of the offence could give rise to speech crimes. “The bill contains many grey areas and the authorities could easily make use of the law to criminalise free speech,” it said. “We are concerned that this law will create room for the authorities to make revenge-style prosecutions against those who blow the whistle for things unrelated to news coverage.” The group said foreign firms might refrain from providing internet and cloud services in Hong Kong as the law would undermine their confidence. Facebook, Google ‘could stop offering services’ in Hong Kong over doxxing law “Internet service providers may be forced to close down some websites, including those irrelevant [to the actual crime of doxxing]. In the long run, the law will deal a blow to Hong Kong’s status as an internet hub,” it said. But in an op-ed submitted to the Post , justice minister Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah maintained the business environment in the city was as healthy as ever, rebutting a recent US advisory warning companies of the risks of operating in the city after Beijing’s imposition of the national security law . To the contrary, she argued, “since the national security law was enacted, the certainty and predictability of Hong Kong’s business environment has been enhanced, thereby attracting investment and businesses”. “There is no change to Hong Kong’s open and transparent market, and the level playing field that encourages fair competition,” she added.