Internet censorship in Hong Kong
There is very little Internet censorship in Hong Kong beyond laws that criminalize the distribution of unlicensed copyrighted material and obscene images, particularly child pornography. Hong Kong law provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Freedom of expression is well protected by the Hong Kong Bill of Rights. No websites, regardless of their political views, are blocked and government licenses are not required to operate a website. There is some monitoring of the Internet. Democratic activists claim central government authorities closely monitor their e-mails and Internet use.
History and law
Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong and the SAR’s charter, the Basic Law of the SAR, specify that Hong Kong will enjoy a high degree of autonomy except in matters of defense and foreign affairs. Chapter III of the Basic Law outlines "Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Residents" including freedom of expression and association and privacy rights. The Hong Kong Bill of Rights elaborates on these and other rights enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong.
Computer crime ordinances
"Section 161: Access to computer with criminal or dishonest intent" of the Crimes Ordinance (Cap 200) which was enacted in 1993 before the widespread use the Internet and the growth of e-commerce generally, provides that it is an offense to obtain access to a computer:
- with an intent to commit an offense;
- with a dishonest intent to deceive;
- with a view to gain for oneself or another;
- or with a dishonest intent to cause loss to another.
Conviction upon indictment of any of these offenses carries a maximum punishment of five years.
Section 27A of the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap 106) enacted in 2000 provides that "any person who, by telecommunications, knowingly causes a computer to perform any function to obtain unauthorized access to any program or data held in a computer commits an offense and is liable on conviction to a fine of HK$20000".
Pursuant to the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance (Cap 390), it is an offense to publish an obscene article. Publication covers distribution, circulation, selling, hiring, giving, or lending the obscene article. Distribution by e-mail falls within the definition of distribution, as does the placing of an obscene article on a website. Distribution does not require any element of financial gain. The definition includes "anything consisting of or containing material to be read or looked at or both read and looked at, any sound recording, and any film, video-tape, disc, or other record of a picture or pictures". An article will be considered obscene if, by reason by its obscenity, "it is not suitable to be published to any person". Obscenity includes "violence, depravity, and repulsiveness". The penalty for this offense is up to three years imprisonment and a fine of up to HK$1,000,000.
It is an offense to possess, produce, copy, import, or export pornography involving a child under 18 years of age, or to publish or cause to be published any advertisement that conveys or is likely to be understood as conveying the message that any person has published, publishes, or intends to publish any child pornography. The penalty for creation, publication, or advertisement of child pornography is eight years’ imprisonment, while possession carries a penalty of five years’ imprisonment.
The Copyright Ordinance (Chapter 528) provides the legal framework for copyright protection in Hong Kong. In April 2011 the government introduced the Copyright (Amendments) Bill 2011 that, if passed, will introduce (i) a new technology-neutral exclusive right for copyright owners to communicate their works through any mode of electronic transmission, with criminal sanctions against those who make unauthorised communication of copyright works to the public; (ii) safe harbor provisions for online service providers; and (iii) additional factors to consider by the courts when awarding additional damages for copyright infringement.
There are complaints that the proposed amendments prohibiting unauthorized use of copyright material in any medium without permission threatens freedom of speech. The bill may negatively affect works of satire or parody on the Internet because there is no "fair-use exception". The government’s position is that the amendments strengthen intellectual property rights. Some pan-democratic activists and supporters termed the bill an "Internet Article 23" (a reference to Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, controversial anti-subversion measures the government proposed in 2002 that led to Hong Kong’s largest-ever street demonstrations, the proposed article was withdrawn in September 2003).
There are reports of media self-censorship since most media outlets are owned by businesses with interests on the mainland, causing authors and editors to defer to the perceived concerns of publishers regarding their business interests. Some scholars suggest that Hong Kong-based academics practice some self-censorship in their China-related work to preserve good relations and research and lecturing opportunities in the mainland.
In a poll published in June 2012 by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, 86.9% of the 663 journalists surveyed felt that press freedom had deteriorated in the past seven years. This is a 28.5% increase from a similar survey in 2007. Those who felt freedom had declined attributed the change to: tighter government control (92%), self-censorship in the industry (71%), interference from Beijing (67.5%), and pressure from the business sector (35.9%). According to respondents the policies that most affect the decline in freedom are: Spot news information being controlled by the police and the Fire Services Department (57%); releasing more official footage and articles and fewer news events being accessible to reporters (41.3); off-the-record briefings increasing tremendously (23.8); and a government proposal to criminalize stalking (16%).
Instances of censorship
Local ISP shutdown – March 1995
In March 1995, Royal Hong Kong Police raided all but one of the pioneering local Internet Service Providers (ISP) offering dialup service, confiscated their servers and records and shut them down for a week, blocking the access of 5000 to 8000 of Hong Kong's early Internet adopters. The raids were thought to be instigated by Supernet, the one ISP not shutdown, and coordinated by the Office of Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) working with the Commercial Crime Bureau (CCB) on the premise that the ISPs were operating without applying for a then-obscure Public Non-Exclusive Telecommunications Service (PNETS) License. Companies shut down were: Hong Kong Internet & Gateway Services (HKIGS) hk.net, Hong Kong Link InfoLink Ilink, Internet Online Hong Kong, Cybernet, Internet Connections, and Asia Online.
Edison Chen photo scandal – January 2008
In January and February 2008, the Hong Kong Police Force arrested ten people who were accused of obtaining, uploading, or distributing pornographic images after Emperor Entertainment Group (EEG), a multi-billion entertainment company, filed a complaint about the availability of the photos on the Internet. The indecent and obscene images in question were of the Hong Kong actor Edison Chen with various women, several of whom were local actresses. Chen admitted being the author and copyright owner of most of the photographs, and stated that the private photographs had been stolen and published illegally without his consent. A computer technician was convicted of three counts of obtaining access to a computer with dishonest intent, and received a custodial sentence of eight and a half months.
The scandal shook the Hong Kong entertainment industry and received high-profile media attention locally and around the world. The police met with more than 200 people responsible for major Hong Kong websites and BBS communities to urge them to delete the pictures "as they have the responsibility to stop crimes". Related discussion threads were progressively deleted. The police ordered several locally registered web sites and BBS management firms to submit information about their clients, and had retrieved the IP addresses of more than 30 Internet users who allegedly posted photographs. The police crackdown raised questions over violations of the privacy and free speech rights of Internet users and the selective application of the law.
This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Department of State document "2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
- Hong Kong Bill of Rights, 8 June 1991, Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, accessed 30 June 2012
- "Hong Kong", 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Bureau of Democracy, Human rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, 24 May 2012
- "Chapter III: Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Residents", Hong Kong Basic Law, adopted 4 April 1990, effective 1 July 1997
- "Section 161: Access to computer with criminal or dishonest intent", Chapter 200 Crimes Ordinance, Bilingual Laws Information System, Department of Justice, Hong Kong, 1997, accessed 30 June 2012
- "Section 27A: Unauthorized access to computer by telecommunications", Chapter 106 Telecommunications Ordinance, Bilingual Laws Information System, Department of Justice, Hong Kong, 2000, accessed 30 June 2012
- "Chapter 390: Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance", enacted in 1987, amended in 1997, 2000, 2003, 2012, Bilingual Laws Information System, Department of Justice, Hong Kong, accessed 30 June 2012.
- "Chapter 528: Copyright Ordinance", enacted in 1997, amended in 2001, 2003, and 2007, Bilingual Laws Information System, Department of Justice, Hong Kong, accessed 30 June 2012
- "Legislative Council Brief for the Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2011", Commerce, Industry and Tourism Branch, Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, Hong Kong, 2 June 2011, accessed 30 June 2012
- "Hong Kong artists cry foul over copyright bill", Beh Lih Yi, Agence France-Presse (AFP), 20 May 2012
- "Hong Kong editor’s performance fuels broader press freedom concerns", China Media Bulletin: Issue No. 62, Freedom House, 28 June 2012
- "Survey: Government Manipulation Eroded Press Freedom", Hong Kong Journalists Association
- Policy on Internet Access Providers and On-line Service Providers in Overseas Countries (RP04/95-96), Research and Library Services Division, Hong Kong Legislative Council Secretariat, December 1995, 11 pages, retrieved 16 April 2008.
- "Footnote 14" in Telecommunications: The Other Hong Kong Report, John Ure, Director of the Telecommunications Research Project, Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, 26 July 1995, accessed 30 June 2012
- "Eight now held in internet sex probe", Damon Pang, Bonnie Chen and Diana Lee, The Standard, 4 February 2008
- "Tech jailed for stealing sex-with-starlet photos", Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2009
- "Alleged HK celebrity sex photos create a stir", Lydia Chen, Shanghai Daily, 31 January 2008
- "Internet Sex Video Case Stirs Free-Speech Issues in Hong Kong", Keith Bradsher, New York Times, 13 February 2008