Hong Kong government departments have submitted more user information requests to social media networks over the past three years, though there is a general decrease in the number of overall information requests, a report has showed.

The number of requests sent to Facebook increased by 212 per cent in 2015 compared to 2014. There were 184 requests made in 2015, compared to 59 in 2014. The number of accounts involved increased from 89 to 415 between the two years.

The annual transparency report published by the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre said this increase came despite a gradual decrease in general number of user information and content removal requests since 2013. The number of cases dropped from 6,008 in 2013 to 4,637 in 2015.

The report said the government did not directly reply to a question raised by IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok in January about the spike in requests made to Facebook, whilst the social media giant declined to respond to media enquiries concerning which department had made such requests. Nor would it respond as to whether the rise was related to arrests after the 2014 Occupy protests. It only stated that the government requests were for crime-related investigations.

Online comments 

However, according to a database maintained by the project, at least 19 people were arrested for comments made online from June 2014 to November 2016 – ten of which were arrested for remarks made on Facebook. Ten of the 19 arrests were related to the Occupy demonstrations.

All of those arrested were charged under Section 161 of the Crimes Ordinance – involving accessing a computer “with criminal or dishonest intent.” Four have been sentenced to either community service or time in a rehabilitation centre.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, Principal Lecturer at Law of the HKU, was cited as saying that “the authorities were exploiting the ambiguity of ‘access to a computer with criminal or dishonest intent’ to repress political activists’ speech on the internet.”

The Umbrella Movement in 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Craig Choy of the Progressive Lawyers Group, who focuses on privacy issues, told HKFP that it showed a change in user habits whereby internet users are moving from discussion forums to Facebook.

“No matter what you are doing online, it is always advisable to protect your personal information. For example, using Tor on Facebook,” he said.

Rejected requests 

As for the general decrease in the number of requests, the report noted that – although the government has yet to offer any explanation – a driving force could be push-back from international ICT companies. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo rejected an average of 40 per cent of user data requests from the Hong Kong government.

For instance, the Customs and Excise Department requested in 2012 that Google remove 370 YouTube videos for copyright infringement, but they were rejected due to incomplete applications. The department made a record high of 372 removal requests in the following year, but it plummeted to 42 in 2015.

It added that the police accounted for 87 per cent of all user data requests – an average of 4,220 each year – since 2013. But it was not revealed how many of the requests were sent with court orders, or how many were complied with.

Photo: Google screenshot.

In 2014, the police requested Google remove a video posted online which showed apparent police brutality – officers apparently assaulting a person under arrest in a police vehicle. The technology company did not take it down.

Choy said the police very often quote Section 58 of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance when they request user information from ICT companies – for the reason of prevention or detection of a crime – and the requests could be easily made by a letter or by phone.

“I guess now ICT companies realise that even if the police make such a request… they are not obliged to comply,” he said. “There are at least two things companies should do: Ask the police to justify the scope of the disclosure of user information, and insist on having a court order.”

The report urges the government to review the user data and content removal request mechanisms, establish internal guidelines and make them public, and routinely publish such statistics on a biannual basis. It also recommends that Hong Kong ICT companies publish regular transparency reports, in the same way that 61 tech firms around the world do.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.