Facebook, Google and Twitter have reportedly threatened to withdraw from Hong Kong if authorities push ahead with planned changes to laws around sharing private information online.
The Hong Kong government is considering new rules that could make platforms liable for the malicious sharing of individuals’ information — a practice known as doxing.
An industry group that represents the tech giants said companies were concerned the rules could put staff at risk of criminal investigations or prosecutions linked to what users do online.
“The only way to avoid these sanctions for technology companies would be to refrain from investing and offering the services in Hong Kong,” the Singapore-based Asia Internet Coalition wrote in a letter seen by the Wall Street Journal.
Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau proposed the changes to the city’s data protection laws in May, saying they were needed to combat doxing, a practice that was prevalent during 2019 protests in the financial hub.
The proposals call for punishments of up to HK$1m, equivalent to about £93,000, and up to five years’ imprisonment.
The dispute highlights escalating tensions between major US companies and Hong Kong as Beijing continues to tighten its grip on the city-state.
The three tech giants were among a string of American firms that last year said they were suspending the processing of requests from Hong Kong law enforcement agencies after China imposed a new national security law on the city.
In the letter Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, said that while the companies were opposed to doxing, the vague wording of the new rules could make the firms and their staff liable to prosecution for the actions of users.
He described this as a “completely disproportionate and unnecessary response”, adding that the changes could also harm freedom of expression online.
A spokeswoman for the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data told the Wall Street Journal that new rules were needed for doxing, which “has tested the limits of morality and the law”.
She added that the amendments “will not have any bearing on free speech”.
Hong Kongers have become increasingly cautious on social media in recent months as Beijing continues to clamp down on dissent.
Last month Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily shut down after authorities froze HK$18m (£1.6m) of the paper’s assets and police raided its offices over claims its reports breached a national security law.
The newspaper, which was founded 26 years ago, blamed the closure on “current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong”.