The enactment of emergency legislation to subdue social unrest would signal an end to Hong Kong’s open internet, an industry association has warned.

The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association (HKISPA) issued a statement on Thursday expressing opposition to reports of a possible blocking of selected internet services in response to recent unrest. The organisation warned that any such measures could cripple the local economy and urged the government to consult the community before imposing any restrictions.

China extradition protest admiralty clash
Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

“Technically speaking, given the complexity of the modern internet including technologies like VPN, cloud and cryptographies, it is impossible to effectively and meaningfully block any services, unless we put the whole internet of Hong Kong behind large scale surveillance firewall,” it read.

The HKIPSA also said that any such restrictions would be detrimental to the local economy and would not deter users from accessing their desired services using TOR or VPN services, which enable users to circumvent firewalls.

“By the above token, HKISPA would like to warn that, imposing any insensible restrictions on the open internet would only result in more restrictions, as the original restrictions wouldn’t be effective, and ultimately the result is putting Hong Kong’s internet behind a big firewall,” it read. “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.”

Under the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO). the city’s leader and her council of advisors are granted broad powers to “make regulations on occasions of emergency or public danger,” which include censorship and the “control and suppression of publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communications and means of communication.”

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The plan was first reported by pro-government newspaper Sing Tao Daily, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam saying on Tuesday that she would consider using all laws in Hong Kong. The law was last used during the 1967 riots.

“All of Hong Kong’s laws, if they can provide a rule of law measure to stop violence and chaos, the government has a responsibility to examine them,” Lam said.

The HKISPA added that the city transits 80 per cent of the internet traffic for mainland China and is home to over a hundred local and international data centres, meaning that the internet industry relies upon an open network. Any restrictions, it added, “completely ruin the uniqueness and value of Hong Kong as a telecommunications hub, a pillar of success as an international financial centre.”

A spokesperson for HKISPA told HKFP that the association learned of a possible government attempt to block the instant messaging app Telegram and the Reddit-like forum LIHKG, both popular among protesters, from local media outlets including pro-Beijing paper Wen Wei Po and Now TV, which cited other media reports.

‘Cornerstone’ of the economy

Leonhard Weese, an independent tech privacy researcher, told HKFP that a free and open internet is the “cornerstone” of the city’s economy, alongside the free flow of capital, goods and people.

“The mere fact that we are discussing (questioning) their continuation is a sign of big trouble for our future,” he said.

China extradition protest admiralty clash
Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

But Weese added that countermeasures could be easily employed to curb government internet restrictions and that blocking VPN services would paralyse large corporations, such as the stock exchange.

“It would not be easy to put Hong Kong behind the great firewall. Hong Kong’s infrastructure is separate from China’s and the data can’t be easily re-routed through the firewall, especially given the size of the data,” he said. “It’s impossible for the government to selectively censor the internet in the short run. They [would] either shut it down or censor it only symbolically.”

Hong Kong has entered its 12th consecutive week of protests, sparked by an ill-fated extradition bill that would have allowed case-by-case fugitive transfers to China. Since June, large-scale demonstrations have morphed into sometimes violent displays of dissent over Beijing’s encroachmentdemocracy, alleged police brutality, surveillance and other community grievances.

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.