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Debate over indecency filtering in Hong Kong

Categories: China, Hong Kong (China)

Hong Kong government is completing its first round of consultation on the Control of Obscene and Indecent Article Ordinance (COIAO) [1]at the end of January, 2009. The most debatable section is on the control over online new media as the existing practice of indecent and obscene censorship is very arbitrary and the extension of the ordinance to the internet may violate freedom of speech and expression. Moreover, the anti-smut campaign in China has become a pretext for political censorship [2], internet users in Hong Kong also worries that ISP level filtering will give an infrastructure for political censorship in the future.

At present, the Hong Kong government adopts a complaint-driven approach to deal with obscene or indecent Internet content. The administrative body, Television and entertainment License Authority (TELA), would issue warning to local ISPs and OSPs for adding warning message or taking down indecent materials, while for obscene articles, it would hand over the case to the police.

In the government's consultation paper, it is stated that:

Given the emergence of new forms of media, particularly the growing popularity of the Internet, members of the public consider it important that measures are taken to protect youngsters from the dissemination of obscene and indecent materials on such new media systems.

In the consultation paper, suggestions include:

1. making it a legislative requirement for ISPs to provide filtering software;
2. tightening statutory controls, for example, web users are required to input their credit card data before getting access to webpage containing indecent materials to ensure that they have attained the age of 18;
3. regulating P2P communication.

The consultation has stirred up strong reactions from ISPs, OSPs and active internet users. ISPs pointed out that mandatory filtering service would increase the cost of ISPs service and suggested client's end filtering software instead.

OSPs, are worried that the implementation of the highly arbitrary categorization system on the internet would affect freedom of speech, especially on issues related with sex, gay and lesbian, vulgar expression for criticizing politics, etc. Moreover, the enforcement of the COIAO may open the path for application of more regulations on the Internet, such as Association Ordinance and Public Order Ordinance and the future National Security related set of law (article 23).

The P2P monitor will also violate internet users’ privacy, as there is no way for the the users to check how their data would be used (similar to the case of the private data detention of the TOM skype [3] in mainland China). They also demand the government to set up a mechanism for monitoring the abuse of private filters as organizations, like Nutongxueshe [4] finds out that the existing private filters have filtered away websites that actively discuss the COIAO because they contain too many “sensitive words”, such as “sex”.

The moral debate within the society is very tense. As conservative Christian rights consider any form of nudity and sexual intimacy be classified as indecent (require warning messages and for 18 or above only) as it would induce “sinful thought” to youth and insist the exposure of sexual organ, explicit sex and non-heterosexual sexual behavior as obscene (have to be banned for distribution to all), they have launched campaign to push the government for imposing mandatory filtering service at ISPs level and banning the distribution of indecent articles to youth (under 18) and obscene article (to all, including adult). They mobilize responses via weekly sermon, Christian schools, social service organizations, etc. On the other hand, the liberal sector of the population call for a more open-minded attitude towards sex-related content and tolerance towards sexual minorities. Many suggest to adopt the “harm principle” rather than “moral principle” for banning articles. And they mobilize via facebook (e.g 1, please concern about the COIAO [5] and 2, please don't impose your value onto others [6]) and internet platform (such as the anti-censorship special page at inmediahk [7]).

Moreover, human rights, media and progressive civic sector suggest to add human rights and free expression principle to the classification system, giving exemption to arts, literature, religion, science and public concern matter in the classification guideline.

Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang has also recently criticized the existing indecent censorship practice for confusing the administrative and legal function. He suggests to separate the two functions and reform the small circle adjudicator system into a jury system. Although the legal and human rights perspective has set a constructive direction for the reform, the public attention is still on moral debate and the fight between conservative Christian rights and liberals, in particular sexual minority groups.

After this round of consultation, the government will come up with a concrete proposal for reforming the COIAO and regulating the new media later this year.