Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram Pause Responding to Hong Kong Authorities’ Requests for User Data

China imposed a national security law on the special administrative region last week

Will the waters remain calm in Hong Kong? Nikada/iStock

Facebook reacted to China’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong last week by revealing Monday that requests for Facebook and WhatsApp user data from law enforcement agents in the special administrative region were suspended.

Messaging application Telegram took similar steps, as well, telling Hong Kong Free Press that it will not process data requests from authorities until an international consensus is reached on last week’s moves, and telling The Wall Street Journal it never shared user data with authorities from the SAR in the past.

Social platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube had been allowed to operate in Hong Kong free from the firewall imposed by China on internet users in the mainland.

Facebook policy communications director Andy Stone said, “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions. We have a global process for government requests and, in reviewing each individual request, we consider Facebook’s policies, local laws and international human rights standards. We are pausing the review of government requests for user data from Hong Kong pending further assessment of the national security law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts.”

The social network received 241 government requests for data on users in Hong Kong during the second half of 2019, according to its most recent transparency report. Those requests covered 257 accounts, and some data was produced on 46% of them.

Facebook pointed out that it has a dedicated online channel for requests from law enforcement officials, and those requests are reviewed and validated as Stone described above.

The company added that Facebook Hong Kong has no control over the collection, storage, use or disclosure of personal information of users in or from the SAR.

Francis Fong, honorary president of trade association Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, told Newley Purnell of the WSJ, “I think it’s a good sign. (Facebook is) upholding freedom of speech and user privacy.”

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.