Hong Kong Court Hands Down Protest-Targeting Order Banning Online Content That ‘Incites Violence’

Tech Dirt – by Tim Cushing

The ongoing Hong Kong protests aren’t going to end anytime soon, but the government keeps throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. While US corporate entities are busy exchanging their spines for Chinese market share, those actually on the front lines are standing up for Hong Kong protesters. 

Hong Kong retains some autonomy from the Chinese government, which has allowed it to somewhat elude being cut off from the world by the Great Firewall of China. Local ISPs aren’t willing to play the government’s game, pushing back against demands they engage in censorship of Hong Kong residents on behalf of China. Pointing to the existence of VPNs and encrypted traffic, ISPs said any efforts it made would be mostly useless, if they were interested in making this effort. Which they weren’t.

Other providers, like Telegram, have refused government demands to censor content and have faced repeated DDoS attacks from state-sponsored hackers in retaliation. What’s already being attempted will likely accelerate, thanks to an order handed down by the Hong Kong high court.

A court on Thursday granted Hong Kong’s embattled government an interim injunction banning anyone from posting or spreading messages online that could incite violence as authorities struggle to get a grip on nearly five months of protest chaos and social unrest.

Mr Justice Russell Coleman of the High Court issued the order to restrain members of the public from “wilfully disseminating, circulating, publishing or republishing” any material on platforms online such as popular Reddit-like forum LIHKG and messaging app Telegram that “promotes, encourages or incites the use or threat of violence”.

This temporary injunction that allows the government to target protesters will likely be formalized later this month, obligating service providers to find content and block it, even if it’s not entirely clear what content is considered a violation of this order.

The judge himself suggested the injunction might make it easier for the government to find protesters it wants to punish.

“One purpose of application for this order is to identify to people who may not know that expressions online are subject to scrutiny by the law,” he continued. “It may be a misconception to think that expressions online are not subject to scrutiny.”

But the order itself contains no requirements that social media platforms or other service providers hand over users’ details. It only requires them to find content and remove it. This would make platforms responsible for content created by users, which may be all the government wants, since it’s so much easier to track down platforms than users.

But will it work? That depends on what the government really wants. If it wants service providers to make it more difficult for protesters to organize, then it will probably be a success. If the government wants to prosecute individuals for their posts, this injunction isn’t going to help it much.

The government bears the burden of proof, which means it must be able to show the person violating the injunction knew of the injunction’s existence and violated it knowingly. Since this isn’t a law created by the legislature but rather a quasi-law created by a court order, ignorance of its existence is probably a legitimate excuse. And since there’s no obligation to hand over user details, the government may not have much luck finding people to prosecute. Given these limitations, it seems clear the government is more interested in forcing service providers to censor on its behalf.

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