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

from the less-speech,-more-silence dept

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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Comments on “Hong Kong Court Hands Down Protest-Targeting Order Banning Online Content That 'Incites Violence'”

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21 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'Sure you could post it, but do you want to take the risk?'

I can’t help but find it rather… odd that they wouldn’t have a law on the books that already covers that sort of speech, as I believe even in the US incitement to violence is one of the very few limits on free speech, such that I suspect that the article is correct in that the real goal of this is to chill speech, both by getting the platforms to act as government censors and by making people hesitant to post/share content lest it be deemed in violation.

Dan says:

Re: 'Sure you could post it, but do you want to take the risk?'

I believe even in the US incitement to violence is one of the very few limits on free speech

You are correct. The headline would be much better if it had focused on the part of injunction about "promoting or encouraging" violence, both of which are protected in the US under the First Amendment. But even for incitement to fall outside of the 1A’s protections, it must be incitement to imminent lawless action–right here, right now.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

“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”

The biggest issue with the wording of this order lies with “incites”. Literally anything could make someone mad enough to punch another person. Theoretically, a nonviolent protestor could be punched by someone else and still go to jail because they “incite[d] the use…of violence” by saying something positive about the protests online. I have to imagine Hong Kong’s mainland rulers somehow had a little input on that wording.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"I have to imagine Hong Kong’s mainland rulers somehow had a little input on that wording."

If "by a little input" you mean around 100%, then sure.

When China took back Hong Kong in 1997 it was pretty much understood by anyone who knew anything about China that the "one country, two system" rule would be in effect not one second longer than it took for China to replace Hong kong’s power structure with Beijing loyalists.

ANY nod at all towards Hong kong’s brief period of liberal and democratic values should be considered a face-saving exercise of no practical worth whatsoever.

The probable use of that legal statute? A flimsy veneer of legal respectability when a nonviolent crowd of protestors gets clubbed into submission and carted off to jail subsequent to which Beijing then claims that rocks were thrown from the crowd.

You can probably assume that any laws made in Hong Kong in the next few years will be thinly disguised wedges to allow mainland law to apply in hong Kong.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: ???

Wow, the ignorance and arrogance combined…

  1. A name doesn’t necessarily indicate nationality, especially in a country with a long history of intertwining cultures.
  2. People don’t instantly abandon their lives and families the second political climates change. Many
  3. A quick Google search would tell you there’s still somewhere in the region of 20-30,000 British citizens still living there. Not as many as before, but it’s a small town’s worth of people.
  4. A quick search on the name would have told you that the gentleman in question started with the Hong Kong bar in 1991, and has continually been moving upward in his career since 2006. In other words, he’s in the position because of work he’s done AFTER 1997, when you claim he should have abandoned his life there.

"And what are they doing on the High Court?"

Because they have not moved to a 100% Chinese government governemt. In fact, did you notice any protests? They’re actually about trying to stop that from happening.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: ???

"Well, that’s good solid Chinese name… are there still Brits left in Hong Kong? And what are they doing on the High Court?"

There are. Most notably there is or was a solid core of british who tried by all means to prevent the UK government from handing Hong Kong back to China, knowing full well what would happen.

A few of those are still left though the Chinese are busy replacing every position of any power with their own people.

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