TikTok said Tuesday that it will stop operating in Hong Kong and, along with other social media companies, will carefully consider the impact of a comprehensive national security law that came into force last week.
The short-form video app is scheduled to depart from Hong Kong because various social media platforms and messaging apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Google and Twitter restrict the possibility of providing user data to the Hong Kong authorities.
Social media companies are currently assessing the impact of the security law, which prohibits what Beijing sees as secessionist, subversive, or terrorist activity, or as a foreign intervention in the city's internal affairs. On the mainland ruled by communists, China's "Great Firewall" is blocking foreign social media platforms.
Critics see the law as Beijing's boldest move to address the legal gap between the former British colony and the mainland's authoritarian communist party system.
TikTok said in a statement that it had decided to shut down operations "in the light of recent events."
Facebook and its messaging app WhatsApp said in separate statements on Monday that they would freeze the review of government requests for user data in Hong Kong "pending further assessment of the national security law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts. ”
Hong Kong was hit by massive, sometimes violent, protests against the government during much of the past year when residents of the former British colony responded to the proposed extradition laws, which since their withdrawal may have resulted in some suspects being brought before mainland Chinese courts have been brought to justice.
The new law criminalizes some democracy-friendly slogans such as the widespread "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time", which the Hong Kong government says has a separatist connotation.
The fear is that this will undermine the particular freedoms of the semi-autonomous city, which has operated under the "one country, two systems" framework since China took control in 1997. This agreement allowed the freedoms of people in Hong Kong not allowed in mainland China. like public disagreement and full internet access.
The Telegram platform has been used extensively to spread democracy-friendly messages and information about the protests. It is aware of "how important it is to protect our Hong Kong users' right to privacy," said Mike Ravdonikas, a company spokesman.
"Telegram has never shared data with the Hong Kong authorities in the past and does not intend to process data requests related to users in Hong Kong until an international consensus is reached on ongoing political changes in the city," he said .
Twitter has also stopped all data and information requests from the Hong Kong authorities after the security law came into force last week. The company said it was "committed to protecting the people who use our service and their freedom of expression".
"Like many organizations of public interest, leaders and civil society organizations, as well as industry peers, we have serious concerns about the development process and the full intent of this law," the company said in a statement.
Google also said it had "stopped production due to new data requests from the Hong Kong authorities."
Although social platforms in Hong Kong have not yet been blocked, users have started cleaning up their accounts and deleting democracy-friendly posts for fear of retaliation. This retreat has spread to the street: many shops and stores that have publicly shown solidarity with protesters have removed the democracy-friendly sticky notes and works of art that had adorned their walls.
In accordance with the implementing provisions of Article 43 of the National Security Act, which gives the city police extensive powers to enforce the law, platforms, publishers and Internet service providers may be instructed to remove published electronic messages that “are likely or likely to be a threat to national security cause an offense that threatens national security. "
Service providers who fail to meet these requirements can face fines of up to $ 12,903 and prison terms of up to six months.
Persons who post such messages may also be asked to remove the message, or similar fines and a one-year prison sentence may be imposed.
The Hong Kong authorities quickly took measures to implement the law after the law entered into force on June 30. The police arrested around 370 people.
The rules allow Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, to authorize the police to intercept and monitor communications to "prevent and detect crimes that threaten national security".
In "exceptional circumstances", the police can search for and obtain warrants without a warrant that require suspected violators of the national security law to hand in their travel documents to prevent them from leaving Hong Kong.
Written notices or injunctions may also be issued to freeze or confiscate property if there are "reasonable grounds" to suspect that the property is linked to an offense that threatens national security.
TikTok, which is operated by the Chinese internet giant Bytedance, has tried to distance itself from its Chinese roots while at the same time striving for global appeal. Former Walt Disney manager Kevin Mayer was recently appointed CEO.
The company has stated that all of its data is stored on servers in the United States and has insisted that no content be removed, even if the Chinese government requests it. Even so, TikTok was still considered a national security risk. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Monday he wanted to ban certain social media apps, including TikTok.