A Hong Kong advocacy group made up of pro-democracy activists in self-imposed exile has claimed that a US-based web-hosting company has taken down their website because of a Hong Kong police request under the national security law. WordPress has denied the claim, saying only that the host had broken their rules.
The website of the US-based Hong Kong Liberation Coalition, co-founded by former lawmaker Baggio Leung, was taken down on Thursday, the group announced. Launched less than two weeks ago, the WordPress-hosted website hkliberationcoalition.com now displays a note saying it “has been archived or suspended in accordance with our Terms of Service.”
Another Israeli web hosting company Wix temporarily removed the website of another activist group linked to UK-based activist Nathan Law, 2021HKcharter.com. The Wix website was reinstated on Thursday evening, hours after Law made public a request from the Hong Kong police that asked Wix to remove his group’s website under Article 43 the national security law, which empowers police to remove content it deems to endanger national security or seek assistance from web providers to do so.
Non compliance with such requests may result in an offence that is punishable with a fine of up to HK$100,000 and one year of imprisonment upon conviction.
The law enacted by Beijing in July 2020 also awarded itself global jurisdiction to pursue any entity suspected to have violated the security law overseas.
HKLC received an email from WordPress saying that their website had been suspended and cannot be resumed, but did not state a reason for the suspension, Leung told HKFP.
“We asked them how we have violated the terms of service, but they have yet to respond,” Leung said.
“I suspect this is related to the Hong Kong government,” he said, referring to the police request that Law had made public and the similar timing of the removals.
Leung said the website introduced HKLC as an advocacy group based in the US that seeks to provide support for the pro-democracy cause of Hong Kong and to offer humanitarian support to asylum seekers. It also contains description of its anonymous members who, like himself, are activists in self-exile.
The website also has a function that allows for online donations through a third-party payment platform, which remained unaffected, Leung said, adding: “We will no longer use WordPress, so we are studying other solutions.”
In a tweeted reply to an HKFP journalist on Sunday, WordPress denied external influence and said they would help the site owner move to a different host: “We are in contact with the site owner to address the content which violated our User Guidelines,” WordPress said. “The decision to disable access to the site because of these violations was made by http://WordPress.com independent of any outside influence.”
WordPress’s US-based parent company Automattic said in response to HKFP’s enquiry that the website was suspended was taken down “after receiving a valid report” about multiple violations.
A statement on the company’s website said it is “committed to freedom of speech.”
“Our core mission is to democratize publishing… we don’t censor, moderate, or endorse the content of any site we host,” the statement read.
The company received 168 government requests and court orders globally for content take-down in the second half of 2020, according to its transparency reports. It removed content as a result of about half of these requests.
Founding director of Ranking Digital Rights and internet freedom advocate Rebecca Mackinnon told HKFP it is “quite common” for US technology companies to comply with law enforcement request from overseas jurisdictions.
Whether the web hosting company has obligation to comply with Hong Kong’s national security law “depends on how Automattic’s lawyers decide to interpret a particular law, based on their physical presence and legal exposure in a given country,” Mackinnon said.
In response to HKFP’s enquiry, the Hong Kong police said in a statement that it does not comment on individual cases and any action it takes will depend on the circumstances and in accordance with the law.
Update 6/6: This article was updated to include a tweeted response from WordPress.
Update 6/7: This article was updated to include a statement from the police.
Update 6/8: This article was updated to include a statement from Automattic.