my next research project: personal data protection in hong kong

Have you ever wondered what others know about you? We live in an era where everything that we do, including who we call, for how long and at what times, what websites we visit and how often, all can be recorded in minute detail. This can be a scary thought: information is power and money, as companies can share your information with law enforcement or sell it to other companies, oftentimes without your consent.

Am I being overly concerned? Well, remember what happened in 2010 in Hong Kong? Initially denying accusations that they had sold people’s personal information without their consent, Octopus ended up confessing that, yes, they had sold away personal information of their users, making a not insignificant profit of HKD44m, which was about 31% of its total revenue. Octopus is the company famous for pioneering the smart card that everyone in Hong Kong has and uses to conveniently pay for a wide range of things, from public transportation, to candy bars, to electricity bills, with just one simple tap of the card. The personal information Octopus sold included partial identity card numbers; partial date of birth, including year and month; mailing address without block and floor details; occupation; gender; range of salary; and spending on a reward scheme. Upset and angry that Octopus was collecting, processing and even selling their personal information, users demanded to know why this could happen at all, and whether anything could be done about it. This incident ultimately led to the strengthening of data protection law in Hong Kong, which was already known for being the first jurisdiction in Asia to have a dedicated personal data protection law.

A strong law that guarantees the protection of personal information in Hong Kong: that’s great. But is it working? That’s not so clear: there was a record high number of complaints in 2015, with 40% of the complaints “related to the use of personal data without the consent of data subjects”. Perhaps not surprising, a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center revealed how people are increasingly feeling a sense of resignation and fatalism when it comes to privacy: more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also feel that this already happened and that they cannot do anything about it. But people still care about privacy: another study by Pew revealed that 93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important; while 90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important.

I study internet freedom. I believe being able to protect your privacy is critical not only because privacy is a human right, but also because privacy helps free expression: if you feel you are being watched, you will self-censor yourself. It’s why I am working on a research project, to understand the collection, processing and sharing of personal information here in Hong Kong; a research project that is in collaboration with InMedia Hong Kong and the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. If you’re interested, keep your eye on this space: there will be more to come.

playing with new toys: 360 degree photos

Nicholas Whitaker from the Google News Lab gave an inspiring talk at our School last week and took this cool picture. Thanks Nic!

Post from RICOH THETA. – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

the coming colonization of hong kong cyberspace

my latest article covers the government response to the use of the internet by the umbrella movement. it is titled “the coming colonization of hong kong cyberspace” (pdf) and published in the chinese journal of communication.

here’s the abstract:

Governments are increasingly playing catch-up and sometimes even leapfrogging ahead of social movements in the use of digital tactics; government responses to new technologies include surveillance, censorship and demonization of foreign influence. This development has implications for the emancipatory potential of new technologies, in particular for the anonymous, decentralized and autonomous character of the Internet.

my latest piece in the guardian

My latest op-ed in the Guardian, on why the occupy protests are far from over. [local backup].

Hong Kong’s Occupy protests are far from over. Let’s raise our umbrellas

Small paper umbrellas -- symbols of the

‘The umbrella movement is no failure. The protesters went the distance with the government for 75 days straight.’ Photograph: Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

Is this the end? The police cleared the Occupy sites and protesters on Thursday, arresting 247 people. The continuing occupation was beginning to lose support from the public, and there are still no concrete or clear steps towards electoral reform. But the umbrella movement is no failure.

The protesters went the distance with the government for 75 days straight. They did so peacefully, from the very beginning to the bitter end. There was no looting, no rioting and, most importantly, not a single casualty.

What’s even more impressive is that, through their own hard work and smarts, the students built a community from the ground up. They created many works of art, with the Lennon Wall – a concrete staircase covered in thousands of sticky notes of support – as perhaps its most famous example. The students did homework in a makeshift study hall they constructed, fully equipped with Wi-Fi stations and exercise bikes for generating electricity. As if that wasn’t enough, students in my university classes continued to hand in their assignments on time throughout the protests.

Students also showed that they are not naive. In an unprecedented live debate lasting over two hours, student leaders went toe to toe with high-ranking government officials discussing electoral reform. After the debate, and up to this moment, the government has not given a legitimate answer to a simple question from the students: why can Hong Kong not have open elections?

The students are worried that having the right political connections is becoming a basic necessity for any kind of success. Political success under the proposed election framework is achievable only if you have the approval of Beijing. The students also understand that the right connections to government are a precondition for business success.

There’s no other place in the world where it is more profitable to be a business person with the right political connections than Hong Kong, according to the Economist. It’s also disconcerting that Hong Kong has slipped to its lowest ranking on the corruption index since the handover, in 1997. On top of all this, our chief executive unashamedly warned that poor people would dominate if elections were truly representative, and that young people should consider moving away if they cannot find a job here in Hong Kong.

The students – the next generation of Hong Kong – only want a fair shot at a decent future. They know that open elections are an important step towards making sure the game won’t become completely rigged. They have learned that Hong Kong has always prided itself as a fair and free market where anyone can succeed through hard work and intelligence, and that this is how we became a world leader in manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s (before everything was “Made in China”, consumer goods tended to be “Made in Hong Kong”.)

And they have learned that this is how we transformed ourselves into a leading economy for services, when our manufacturing industry migrated north into mainland China. A free and fair Hong Kong where anyone can make it by working hard enough: that’s the Hong Kong we know and love, and that’s what we need to continue to fight for.

what i have been up to the past three months

since i joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong, i’ve been busy preparing for two new classes, dealing with the Hong Kong protests and getting used to new colleagues and work environment.

i’m also happy to say that i’ve been busy writing. i wrote a piece in the guardian explaining why the hong kong students know that the time to act is now. [local backup].

my friend jason and i decided to take “explaining the students’ perspective” one step further. we took a letter that a student wrote to her parents, and translated it into a comic. this comic went viral on facebook. [english version]

i’ve also given a couple of interviews in Chinese. here’s an article about me in the school magazine, what i research, why i joined the school and also some of my views on the students and the hong kong protests. [local backup].

i also appeared on “money cafe” a casual talk show on business, where i discussed what’s at stake when internet companies want to enter the China market. the best part might not be the actual content, the best part might be hearing me discuss internet surveillance, free expression and the business of this all in my crappy cantonese. [part 1] [part 2]

my latest op-ed is in the south china morning post, on the importance of “one country, two internets” for hong kong. [local backup]

‘One country, two internets’, and why we need to protect it

Late on Tuesday, a small group of people charged the Legislative Council building and broke a glass panel. Reports indicate they did so because they feared the passing of “Internet Article 23”. The original Article 23 is of course the controversial national security bill that provoked half a million Hong Kong people to protest in the streets in 2003. So what exactly is “Internet Article 23”, and should we be concerned?

“Internet Article 23” is actually more than one bill. Lawmakers and advocacy groups use it to refer to at least two different regulations, both with the potential to seriously undermine the free and open internet we enjoy in Hong Kong.

One is the Copyright Amendment bill, a much needed update to the otherwise outdated copyright bill. But many fear that it will punish citizens for remixing original content with social or political commentary as parody or satire. To understand why people are concerned, you only need to take one quick lookonline or walk by the Occupy areas: among the many art pieces, one of the most popular is a life-size cutout of president Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella that many people take selfies with.

The other regulation in question is the Computer Crimes Ordinance. Originally intended to battle computer fraud and hacking, it has been drafted in such a way that it has serious potential for abuse. The most recent case involves the arrest of a citizen for “inciting” others to commit an offence. His crime? Posting a message on an online forum asking others to join him in the pro-democracy protests; the original post has been removed and the police have so far declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

Let’s not forget what is at stake. We only need to look across the border to see a tightly monitored, closely controlled internet where citizens have to watch what they say to each other, even on seemingly private messenger apps such as WeChat. Then they might find themselves at a dead end if they try to find out what is going on; Sina Weibo and Baidu have been filtering search results for “Hong Kong students”, “Hong Kong tear gas” and “true universal suffrage”. And because people started sharing yellow umbrella pictures, Instagram is now the latest member to the club of global internet platforms that are blocked in China, joining Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, amongst others.

In contrast, we have a free and open internet in Hong Kong. Anyone can share their story and decide for themselves what is meaningful or not; no longer does a small and powerful elite determine this for the rest of society. Let’s be clear: a free and open internet doesn’t mean that people can say whatever they want without any consequences; all countries regulate speech to some extent. But it does mean that the conversation is open and inclusive: whether you are a yellow, blue or red ribbon supporter, you don’t have to ask anyone for permission to speak.

Whether you agree with the protesters or not, it is undeniable that they have breathed new life into a conversation that most people had given up on, a conversation about the future of Hong Kong and the status of “one country, two systems”. Sometimes we disagree or even yell at each other, but that’s what it means to have a honest, frank and real conversation, warts and all.

To my knowledge, the Hong Kong government hasn’t censored anything related to the protests. This is surely a good thing. But if the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is that our “one country, two systems” setup isn’t sacrosanct or set in stone. That is why I am asking all of us to keep a close eye on “one country, two internets” and to make sure we preserve and protect the free and open internet in Hong Kong.

The author is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

新媒體中的言論自由 徐洛文教授專訪

特約記者:徐梓傑 (本科四年級生)



今年八月,他重返校園,加入中大新傳學院,就遇上罷課和佔領運動,這名回流香港的助理教授以「Surprise」形容。「香港社會累積了好多年不滿,好似好易就『撻着火』,但在很多人已經放棄的時刻,見到學生一直『頂』住」。他這年執教本科一年級生的Development of Mass Communication課,九月下旬,學生罷課,他才剛剛開課三星期,還未趕得及認識學生。但看見學生們對佔領運動的熱情,已令他留下深刻印象。「下一代這麼有心,學生很有理想,我很榮幸當上他們的老師。」


他憶述最深刻的一次,要處理「Innocence of Muslims」影片惹起回教人不滿的投訴。影片反伊斯蘭教的主題激發不少回教徒於各國示威,最嚴重的包括利比亞及埃及。面對亞洲大部分伊斯蘭教國家的投訴,他的工作是要應對當地政府。當時,巴基斯坦政府要求影片下架,是否下架他需要考慮兩個主要問題:一、法律問題;二、影片是否違反Google內部的政策(例如不容許有三級片)。就着這段影片,因為其內容並無違反Google政策,因此,公司決定這段影片不用下架,而巴基斯坦政府結果封鎖了Youtube。

他形容,大學教學研究與擔任Google公司的前線工作,猶如「識食」同「識煮」的關係。不論在大學任教,還是較早時在美國修讀博士課程期間,他主要研究互聯網、新媒體的全球化政策,當時的論文大多從批判角度入手,是「評價菜式」。但加入Google工作,他便要「親自下廚」,通過游說工作,改變一國政策。因為政府有關資訊傳播的政策如何推行,皆直接影響Google 公司的工作。離開Google,他放棄了高薪厚職、公司股份,還有每年豐厚的聖誕禮物(通常是智能手機)。為的是甚麼?



慢慢地,互聯網普及,他跟表姐也改以電郵聯繫,上網也能收看港台節目,不用再等幾星期從香港寄來的影碟。他感受到互聯網的力量,相信互聯網能打開他的世界,能改變世界。他着迷於互聯網和新媒體的發展,後來考上荷蘭的萊頓大學 (Leiden University),雖然本科和碩士並非修讀傳播學相關學科,但他的碩士論文題目是Internet in China。輾轉他往美國賓夕凡尼亞大學修讀媒體傳播相關的博士學位,2010年學成回流香港,展開其教學及工作生涯。





Hong Kong’s activists know they must act now if democracy is ever to happen

The Hong Kong people are considered the world’s most polite protesters. We queue, recycle and clean up after ourselves. Our protests have always gone without a hitch. Not any more. A lot of people I’ve spoken to this week are in disbelief.

On Friday night the police arrested and attacked many of the students present with pepper spray after a few tried to climb a fence to reclaim what many consider a public space in front of government headquarters. Then, on Sunday, when adults joined the students in their protest, not only did the pepper spray return but the police unleashed canister after canister of teargas into the densely packed crowd. It was at this point that I noticed many Hong Kong people saying: “This isn’t supposed to happen here. This isn’t the Hong Kong I know.”

Yet other people I have talked to, many from an older generation, don’t have much sympathy for the protesters. They feel it is not possible to win against the government, especially when it is backed by Beijing, and argue that the protests are not worth the trouble, that there could be repercussions. Tiananmen Square comes to mind, naturally. But Tiananmen is not the only historical context for understanding what is happening Hong Kong, let alone the best one.

The current protests are as much about democracy as they are about growing social inequality. Students see their options shrinking in front of them. An apartment has always been expensive in Hong Kong, but it has become almost impossible for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder. According to a recent survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a family of four must pay 13 times their annual income to purchase a tiny 37 sq metres (400 sq ft) flat. To top it off, Hong Kong took top honours in the recent Economist crony-capitalism index, beating Russia to first place.

Unsurprisingly, trust in the government is at an all time low. This distrust has been building up for over a decade. In 2003, the public came out in massive numbers to protest against Article 23, a national security law that the government was trying to push through, and would have impinged on our freedoms. The protests were peaceful but persistent. To the surprise of many, the protesters pressured the government to shelve the plan indefinitely.

More recently, in 2012, the public protested against the national education plan that the government was trying to push through. This scheme would be mandatory to all students, and many citizens called it brainwashing propaganda because it included textbooks that dismissed the multiparty systems and glossed over Tiananmen and the Cultural Revolution. Yet again, to the surprise of many, the protests pressured the government to overturn its decision to make the plan mandatory.

The latest proposal the government is trying to push through is the election framework for 2017. The Hong Kong Basic Law, ratified by China and the UK in 1984, stipulates that “the election of the fifth chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the year 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage”. Yet, after years of delays and broken promises, the current proposed framework mandatesthat any candidate running for chief executive has to be vetted by a small committee stacked with pro-Beijing supporters. Simply put, they want to control who can run. For many, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Let’s be realistic. None of the students I have spoken to expect “democracy” to magically solve all their problems. They also understand that many are sceptical about their chances to change the government’s mind. But history has taught them not only that change is possible but that if they don’t do it, no one else will. Armed with little more than clingfilm on their faces, face masks, safety goggles, and umbrellas as protection against pepper spray and teargas, they fight for their dream of a better future. A little hope can go a long way.

i’m back

after more than three years at google, i’m finally coming back to academia. i’ve decided to join the school of journalism and communication at the chinese university of hong kong as an assistant professor. i’ll be focusing my future research on free expression and internet policy.

i had an amazing few years at google, where i had the privilege to witness and shape the direction of the company during many key moments in internet history, including the innocence of muslims video and the snowden revelations. i learned a lot in these past few years and am grateful i was in a position to contribute towards building an internet that is more open, transparent and supportive of free expression.

work at google was fascinating and rewarding, but after several years, i also missed teaching, research and writing. i look forward to teaching an undergraduate class on development of mass communication and a graduate seminar on new media policy this semester. and i’m back to working on turning my dissertation into a book. i’m also developing a new research project on the political economy of free expression online (more on this later).

in short, i’m glad to be back!