A new bill criminalising doxxing will give Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog the power to order arrests without a warrant and to request that content be removed from websites hosted outside Hong Kong.

Social media giants have expressed alarm at the proposed law, calling it a completely disproportionate response to the problem.

Photo: inmediahk.net via CC 2.0.

The Personal Data (Privacy) (Amendment) bill 2021 will be gazetted on Friday and the Legislative Council will start debating it next Wednesday.

In January, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD) revealed that victims in 38 per cent of the doxxing complaints it received since June 2019 — when protests against a bill allowing extradition to China erupted — were police officers and their family members, while 30 per cent were supporters of the force or of the government. A small number of journalists were also targets.

The government proposes to establish two tiers of doxxing offences – publishing information about a person without their consent in order to harm them – according to a brief submitted to the Legislative Council on Wednesday.

Photo: Pixabay.

The first tier would be a summary offence of disclosing personal data without the subject’s consent, punishable by a maximum fine of HK$100,000 and two years’ imprisonment.

Under a second tier, doxxing which causes specific harm to the subject or family members may result in a fine of up to HK$1 million and five years in prison.

The privacy watchdog will be empowered to serve a “cessation notice” on people in Hong Kong or on service providers overseas, if personal data is disclosed without the subject’s consent and regardless of whether such disclosure is made in Hong Kong. Violations of cessation notices may lead to up to two years behind bars and up to HK$100,000 in fines.

Under existing laws, it is not mandatory to comply with the PCPD’s requests to remove doxxing content.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

An industry group with members including Google, Twitter and Facebook issued a letter to the government on behalf of its members last week, saying tech companies may have no choice but to refrain from investing or offering its services in the city if the government moves forward with what it called a “completely disproportionate and unnecessary response” to doxxing.

In response, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the group’s reaction was unwarranted, although Privacy Commissioner Ada Chung said she was ready to meet with it to ease concerns.

Once the new law is passed by the legislature, currently dominated by the pro-establishment camp, the privacy watchdog will be able to conduct criminal investigations and initiate prosecutions on behalf of the privacy commissioner or, for more serious cases, by referring them to police or the Department of Justice.

Search and seize

The Privacy Commissioner’s expanded powers will allow it to request information or documents from anyone to assist investigations, and non-compliance without a reasonable excuse will be an offence.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang at an unofficial meeting of the Panel on Constitutional Affairs. Photo: Legislative Council, via video screenshot.

The commissioner may stop, search and arrest a suspect without warrant, according to the brief. But except in urgent cases a warrant will be required for the commissioner to enter and search premises, seize materials and search for and decrypt data stored on electronic devices.

Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Erick Tsang previously said the government may apprehend staffers working for overseas websites who do not comply with these notices. “A lot of these overseas platforms will have operational or management staff in Hong Kong. We can catch these people,” he said in May.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.