NEW YORK/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok announced on Tuesday it would pull out of Hong Kong within days, as global tech giants struggle to figure out how to operate in the city under sweeping new security rules imposed by Beijing.
Major US internet companies including Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Zoom have all announced they have suspended the processing of requests for user data from the Hong Kong authorities while they study the new law.
The US companies’ social media platforms are generally banned in China, where access is blocked by Beijing’s “great firewall”. Most have operated freely in Hong Kong, but will now have to determine how to comply with new rules for the city, which rights groups say threaten freedoms enjoyed for decades.
Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, said in a statement on Monday it was pausing reviews of user data requests for all of its services “pending further assessment of the National Security Law.”
Google and Twitter said they had suspended their reviews of data requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately after the law went into effect last week. Zoom and Microsoft’s LinkedIn issued similar statements on Tuesday.
Apple said it does not receive requests for user content directly from Hong Kong, but requires authorities there to submit requests through the US Department of Justice under a legal assistance treaty.
“We’re assessing the new law, which went into effect less than a week ago, and we have not received any content requests since the law went into effect,” Apple said in a statement.
Tuesday’s announcement by TikTok of its plan to quit Hong Kong is notable because the short-form video app is owned by a Chinese company but operates only outside of mainland China. Its parent company, ByteDance, runs a separate, similar service inside China, while saying TikTok is intended to appeal to users worldwide. Its exit means Hong Kong users, like those in mainland China, will now be cut off from the global version.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday Washington was considering banning TikTok in the United States. Asked if Americans should download it, he told Fox News: “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
A source familiar with TikTok’s decision to exit Hong Kong said the city was a small, loss making market for the platform.
China’s parliament passed the national security legislation last week, setting the stage for the most radical changes to the former British colony’s way of life since it returned to Chinese rule 23 years ago.
Hong Kong late on Monday published more details about how the new law will strengthen police powers over the internet, including the ability to ask publishers to remove information deemed a threat to national security.
Asked about the moves by the US tech firms, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told a news conference on Tuesday: “Ultimately, time and facts will tell that this law will not undermine human rights and freedoms.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, in response to a question on TikTok’s plan to exit Hong Kong, said the business environment would improve after the law was established.
“We hope the relevant sides will view China’s rights in safeguarding its sovereignty and safety in a fair, objective and reasonable manner, to speak and act cautiously on the Hong Kong issue, to not selectively create barriers and politicize the issue,” he said.
King-wa Fu, an associate professor at The University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said he expected Hong Kong to introduce measures to regulate media and the Internet, with a system of censorship similar to that in mainland China.
“That’s why (the platforms) are ‘suspending’ and evaluating the situation. I don’t have a crystal ball. But I believe the national security office wouldn’t tolerate a free Internet in Hong Kong to continue and further restrictions would be imposed,” he said.
Some Hong Kong residents say they are reviewing their social media posts, deleting ones that could be viewed as sensitive.
“It’s not safe anymore if the government really does this,” said Richard Lai, 26, a former medical worker. “I’ll keep using the social media platforms but will just use it for obtaining information but will not post anything.”
Messaging app Signal, which promises end-to-end encryption, has seen a surge in sign-ups by Hong Kong residents.
“We’d announce that we’re stopping too, but we never started turning over user data to HK police. Also, we don’t have user data to turn over,” it said on Twitter on Monday.
(By Echo Wang and Pei Li; Reporting by Katie Paul and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco and Echo Wang in New York; Additional reporting by Akanksha Rana in Bengaluru, Sheila Dang in New York, Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Joyce Zhou, Carol Pang and Yanni Chow in Hong Kong and Huizhong Wu in Beijing; Writing by Katie Paul, Brenda Goh and Peter Graff. Editing by Carmel Crimmins)