HONG KONG — The Hong Kong police have forced one of the city’s best-known activist groups to scrub its online presence, in the latest sign of how officials may use a powerful national security law to restrict online speech and impose mainland Chinese-style internet censorship.
The group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, has for decades organized annual vigils to commemorate the 1989 government massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. Even as the central Chinese government tried to erase memory of the massacre from the mainland, the alliance operated freely in Hong Kong, which as a former British colony was promised civil liberties absent in the rest of China.
The group’s social media pages openly criticized the government. Its “About” section on Facebook, for example, declared that it was dedicated to “striving for democracy, freedom and human rights” in China.
But the security law, which the central government imposed on Hong Kong last year to stifle months of pro-democracy protests, empowers officials to order the removal of online content deemed to endanger national security.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, the alliance said the police had invoked the law and ordered it to delete “designated electronic content,” and in response it would delete its website, Facebook page and other social media accounts that night.
In a statement, the police declined to comment on specific cases but cited the powers granted by the security law, and noted they were “only applicable” in cases that could threaten national security.
“The public can continue to use the internet lawfully and will not be affected,” the statement said.
It was not the first time the Hong Kong police had used the law to curb the once-free flow of online information. In January, the authorities appeared to temporarily cut off access to a website that disclosed private information about police officers and other government supporters, a practice known as doxxing.
In May, the police successfully asked Wix, an Israeli website-hosting company, to take down a site built by a group of exiled pro-democracy activists. Wix later apologized and reversed course.
Nor was it the first effort by the authorities to suppress the alliance, which has become one of the most high-profile targets under the law. For the past two years, the government has banned the group from hosting its annual vigil. Many of its leaders have been arrested or jailed, with some charged under the security law with subversion. The police have also demanded details about the group’s funding and membership.
Still, the forced deletion by the alliance marked the most high-profile instance yet of the police clamping down on online expression. As much of Hong Kong society has been transformed to more closely resemble the mainland, some fear the city’s digital spaces will be, too. In the mainland, Facebook, Twitter and many Western news outlets are blocked, and an army of censors works around the clock to remove any sensitive content.
Critics have also pointed to plans by the Hong Kong government to enact what it calls an anti-doxxing bill, though experts have called the language overly broad and open to abuse. Officials have also proposed targeting “fake news,” which many say could be used to further silence voices critical of the government.
On Thursday, the city’s largest pro-Beijing political party proposed following the central government’s lead by enacting stricter controls on video gaming, including enacting time limits for minors, requiring real-name registration and barring pornographic content.
“The hunting season for the open internet is starting, I think,” said Lokman Tsui, a Hong Kong-based fellow at Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity watchdog organization. “They were going after the media, going after the education institutions, the unions. But now it seems like it’s time to ‘fix the internet.’”
In particular, analysts noted that the order targeting the alliance was the first known instance of the police using the security law to force a group to delete posts itself, rather than going through service providers such as Wix.
The security law allows either scenario. But major internet companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter have expressed alarm about the security law, pledging at least temporarily to stop complying with requests from the Hong Kong government for user data. Some even threatened to withdraw from the city over concerns that the planned anti-doxxing law would hold the companies’ employees responsible for users’ actions, though the government said those concerns were unwarranted.
By targeting the users, the police could bypass the platforms, said Glacier Kwong, a Hong Kong digital rights activist now in Germany completing a doctoral degree on data protection.
“Most of the online service providers are huge U.S.-based or huge foreign-based companies,” Ms. Kwong said. “But for individual groups in civil society or individuals, they don’t have the power to compete against the huge grip of the national security law.”
Ms. Kwong said it was unlikely in the short term that Hong Kong would erect a digital firewall like that in the mainland, blocking sites like Facebook outright. The authorities were still invested in presenting an open front to the world, she said. But she said she expected more takedown requests from the police.
“They found it is useful against one of Hong Kong’s biggest groups, so then of course they will try to use it on other groups so they can achieve a very clean internet,” she said.
Already, the security law has left Hong Kong’s digital spaces — which, during the 2019 protests, became raucous forums for organizing, cheerleading and criticizing the government — significantly barer than before. In the weeks after the law was implemented, social media users raced to delete critical posts, and pro-democracy news outlets took down opinion columns.
Radio Television Hong Kong, a government broadcaster once known for fiercely independent reporting, has deleted from YouTube programs more than one year old. When Apple Daily, the city’s leading pro-democracy newspaper, folded in June under government pressure, it erased its entire online archive.
The alliance, before shutting down its Facebook page, did open a new one. But it is unclear the extent to which the group, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment, will replicate its former online presence. So far, the page contains just one post, explaining the police order to delete the previous profile.
The page’s “About” section is empty.
Joy Dong contributed research