Category Archives: censorship

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.

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.

‘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。





dear facebook, freedom or friends? that’s not a choice

facebook fail

I finally decided to leave Facebook.

I won’t lie, that was not an easy decision. In fact, it was really hard. See, Facebook is the only place where all my friends are together. Leaving Facebook is not just quitting a website, but it also means saying goodbye to all my friends. I am afraid I will no longer be invited to birthday parties, see cute pictures of their babies, or be able to find out that they have graduated and congratulate them.

But I have also seen Facebook slowly change over the years, for the worse, a decline that is beautifully documented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. There are many good reasons why you might want to consider leaving Facebook. One of them is that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, apparently says that he “doesn’t believe in privacy”. Well, he just happens to be the guy who is in charge of the website where I hang out pretty much all the time with my friends. I compare this to being invited to a house party with all my friends, but where the owner secretly records everything we do and say, and tries hard to sell it to advertisers. When he gets caught, we rage, and he says “oops, sorry”. Again and again, like an abusive partner, he promises to clean up his act. At what point do we say “enough is enough”? Should we trust him never to do it again? Not if it is clearly against his financial interest. Why not leave?

Facebook effectively holds our friends as hostages. The ransom is not our privacy, but our freedom. Let me explain: I do have (some) privacy on Facebook. Most of my information on Facebook was not exactly secret. The problem is not privacy: it is not being in control of your own life. Facebook might give us privacy, but always on their terms. They make it incredibly hard to leave. They make it almost impossible to save your messages, photos and profile. We are talking about them refusing to give back our information, our photos, /our/ life! It is almost impossible to leave, so we stay and they will continue to take whatever privacy they feel they can get away with. How much do they feel they can get away with? Let me ask you: how much privacy are our friends worth to us?

Dear Facebook, freedom or friends? That’s not a choice. So I quit. Instead, I plan to write on this blog, twitter, and longer e-mails to friends. It will not be a perfect replacement, but it will have to do until a better option comes along (psst there was life before Facebook!).

Allow me to make a wild analogy, one I believe is not entirely out of left field. Many people know that there is censorship in China. Many people also tell me that 1) the poor Chinese must feel really repressed or 2) they must be okay with it. But if that’s the case, who in their right mind can be okay with censorship? They must be brainwashed.

Ask yourself this: if I decide not to leave Facebook, yet I know they do not care at all about my privacy, what does that mean? How is that different from the people who continue to use the internet in China day in day out despite the prevalent and prolific practices of censorship? This is not a rhetorical question. Of course I realize Facebook is not the Chinese government, but I do think there are similarities between them, in kind although perhaps not in degree. Are you still on Facebook, and if so, why?