Hong Kong censorship debate grows as internet firm says can block 'illegal acts'

From Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The company that authorizes Internet domains in Hong Kong will now reject any website that may lead to “illegal activity”, raising new freedoms concerns after Beijing recently ruled a national security law for those of China City introduced year.
.Hk domain owners were notified of the policy change on Thursday, sources told Reuters, hours after Internet service provider Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN) blocked access to HKChronicles, a website containing information on anti-government protests.
The move came just days after more than 50 pro-democracy activists were arrested, and sources have told Reuters that China is planning further action.
HKBN said it had blocked the website, which also publishes personal information about Hong Kong police officers. This is the first such censorship in the city of this kind.
Anti-government protests in 2019 relied heavily on social media channels like Telegram, which allowed protesters to organize anonymously. Many sites also emerged in support of the protest movement, although some were closed after the security law was passed.
Britain returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee of freedoms not seen on the mainland, including freedom of expression and assembly. Democracy activists complain that the leaders of the Communist Party in China are now curtailing these freedoms, something Beijing opposes.
In the emails, the Hong Kong Domain Name Registration Company (HKDNR) alerted .hk domain owners to the new "Acceptable Use" policy by its parent company, Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation Limited (HKIRC), which Effective January 28, according to copies shared with Reuters by recipients.
It said it could refuse requests for new .hk websites that it believes could trigger criminal activity, abuse privacy, or provide false or misleading information.
HKIRC said such an acceptable usage policy was very common in the internet industry and was in line with industry standards.
"We would like to emphasize that the Acceptable Use Policy provides a framework for naming .hk domains only. It does not intend to regulate the content of individual websites," said an HKIRC spokeswoman.
"The adoption of the Acceptable Use Policy is pretty worrying," said a website owner who refused to be identified, citing the fear of impact.
"Things like providing false or misleading information, who should they decide? Are these preventive measures for future false news regulations?"
The steps are fueling concerns that a censorship mechanism will be introduced in Hong Kong that is similar to China's "Great Firewall".
While the Internet is heavily censored in mainland China and access to many foreign platforms such as news sites is blocked, Hong Kong residents have enjoyed greater freedom under the One Country, Two Systems framework than the UK promised to return was brought to China in 1997.
China Mobile and PCCW, the other major Internet service providers in Hong Kong, did not respond to Reuters' requests for comment.
Wong Ho Wah, who ran to represent the information technology sector in Hong Kong before the election was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, said he was deeply concerned that Hong Kong people's freedom to access information on the internet was gradually being affected.
"The government has a responsibility to explain the justification and rationale for the measure," he said, citing the blocking of HKChronicles' website.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang in Hong Kong; writing by Brenda Goh; editing by Kim Coghill and Angus MacSwan)
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