As part of a larger crackdown on the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has suggested that her administration would consider using legacy emergency legal powers to allow the Government of Hong Kong to censor, disrupt, and block social media and other communication platforms, and to shut down the internet. More recently, there are reports of renewed distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and other cyber disruption activities targeting online messaging services, which put the open internet in Hong Kong in peril.
Adding internet shutdowns to these unprecedented attacks would further harm peaceful protesters and make the already unstable situation in Hong Kong even more unpredictable and chaotic. Research also shows that internet shutdowns are ineffective at quelling protests, and often human rights violations and shutdowns go hand in hand. Shutdowns disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that shields human rights abuses from public scrutiny. Journalists and media workers cannot contact sources, gather information, or file stories without digital communications tools. Shutdowns cut off access to vital information and emergency services, plunging whole communities into fear. Internet shutdowns and censorship must never be allowed to become the new normal in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s Internet Service Providers Association also warned that any attempts to restrict the free flow of information, cut access to communications platforms, and shut down the internet in Hong Kong will inevitably spell the end of the open internet. Moreover, attempts to shut down the internet and restrict the free flow of information and data will also immediately be felt by numerous users across the world who access data and services from services based in Hong Kong.
People in Hong Kong have been suffering increased online harassment, doxxing, and targeted cyber attacks of communications platforms amid the protest. There have been numerous reports of targeted DDoS attacks against online forums and messaging platforms in Hong Kong. There have also been attempts by officials to force the identification of users outside of legal process channels, and this illegal action has reportedly forced Telegram to undertake product changes in order to address these risks. Attempts to decrease the openness of the internet and increase its vulnerabilities in Hong Kong deeply harms human rights in our digital age, particularly the rights to free expression, access to information, privacy, and freedom of association.
Shutting down or restricting the internet and disrupting communications will not stop protests nor remove the triggers behind them. They only increase societal anxiety, and often hide human rights violations, creating greater difficulty for long-term stability and peaceful dialogue. Access Now’s research has shown an increase in governments’ leveraging shutdowns to silence people and control information. As part of the global #KeepItOn coalition, we join several other international organizations in an open letter (English | Chinese) asking the Hong Kong Government not to join such actions that would fundamentally undermine democracy in the administrative region and harm the open internet in Asia.