Hong Kong activists denounce court ban on ‘violent’ content as a threat to internet freedom

Image from Hong Kong citizen media outlet, the Stand News.

Internet freedom activists in Hong Kong are challenging an interim injunction issued by the High Court prohibiting anyone from posting and re-posting any information that promotes violence, including on LIHKG and Telegram.

The request for injunction was filed by the Secretary of Justice at the High Court on 31 of October. It requests the court to restrain anyone from:

(a) Wilfully disseminating, circulation, publishing or re-publishing on any internet-based platform or medium (including but not limited to LIHKG and Telegram) any material or information that promotes, encourages or incites the use of threat of violence, intended or likely to cause (i) bodily injury to any person unlawfully within Hong Kong; or (ii) damage to any property unlawfully within Hong Kong.

(b) Assisting, causing, counselling, procuring, instigating, inciting, aiding, abetting or authorizing others to commit any of the aforesaid acts or participate in any of the aforesaid acts.

The High Court Judge Russell Adam Coleman granted the interim injunction for two weeks until a formal hearing for the application is heard on November 15.

However, internet freedom groups are concerned that the injunction would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression online in Hong Kong.

Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter launched a crowdfunding campaign to file a judicial review against the injunction. The organization expressed worries that the injunction could force ISPs to censor or restricting access to certain sites.

The injunction would not only affect individual users’ right to freedom of expression but would also force ISPs or platform operators to filter or take down political contents. Section (a) of the injunction could be used to target internet users who disseminate protest information online, while section (b) could affect ISPs and platform operators which could be accused of “aiding, abetting or authorizing” their users to disseminate such information. As explained by the Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter:

The injunction provisions are overbroad, anyone who issues comments on police brutality and criticism on the government could potentially be construed to be “inciting, aiding or abetting” others to commit unlawful acts. The injunction can even go further to include anyone who simply ‘like’, share and respond to the comments. It is possible that with the use of the injunction, the government may force online platforms and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to censor and restrict access to websites and applications, or request private information of online users who are aiding in the dissemination of the online content. The injunction will not only affect free speech online, it will destroy Hong Kong’s open and free Internet, as well as free flow of information, if the government seeks to invoke more power to censor the Internet.

Currently ISPs and platform operators in Hing Kong are required to block or take down illegal content including information that infringes copyrights and individual privacy. While copyright and privacy have clear definitions, the injunction covers “information that promotes, encourages or incites the use of threat of violence”, and such description could be interpreted as protest information in general.

If overseas platform operators fail to comply with the authorities’ takedown notices, they could be accused by the authorities of “aiding” the distribution of illegal materials and local ISPs would be compelled to block entire platforms such as Telegram and reddit-like LIHKG which are hosted outside Hong Kong. Hence, many believe that the injunction is aimed at blocking LIHKG and Telegram, which are two major communication platform for protesters.

Reports about government's plans to strengthen its control over the internet kept circulating since August 2019. Back on 28 of August, the Hong Kong ISP Association issued a statement warning that “any insensible restrictions on the open Internet would only result in more restrictions” and would put ”Hong Kong’s Internet behind a big firewall.” The association added in its statement:

Therefore, any such restrictions, however slight originally, would start the end of the open Internet of Hong Kong, and would immediately and permanently deter international businesses from positing their businesses and investments in Hong Kong.

The #KeepItOn coalition also issued an open letter to the Hong Kong government in early September against any policy that may harm the open internet:

Shutting down or restricting the internet and disrupting communications will not stop protests nor remove the triggers behind them. They only increase societal anxiety, and often hide human rights violations, creating greater difficulty for long-term stability and peaceful dialogue.

In early October, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to enact the Anti-Mask Law. At the same time, Ip Kwok-him, a pro-Beijing politician and a member of the Executive Council said that the government would not rule out passing a new law to restrict the internet as a means to curb the protests.

While Carrie Lam stressed that she would not pass laws to issue a ban on the internet, the High Court injunction may empower the authorities to force ISPs into blocking certain platforms and websites.

Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter pointed out that the current injunction would result in a climate fear and deter citizens and protesters from speaking out:

If the situation remains unchecked, the police could potentially use the injunction to persecute more innocent and law abiding citizens who have the courage to speak up against the government and injustice.

Internet Society (International) also expressed deep concern over the injunction:

The order will have the unintended consequence of interfering with the normal operations of the local and global Internet, jeopardizing the smooth delivery of Internet services in Hong Kong and its neighbors…This outcome would directly endanger the lives and livelihoods of many Hong Kong people, and will have serious repercussions on Hong Kong’s economy and its links to the global digital economy.

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