Hong Kong '97 - uncertainty clouds Internet freedoms

Hong Kong's IT industry needs to be vigilant if the free exchange of ideas over the Internet is to be maintained after the handover, according to Emily Lau, legislative councillor and member of The Frontier, a pro-democratic party in Hong Kong. In particular, she says, the industry needs to be on guard against self-censorship on the Internet.

Hong Kong's IT industry needs to be vigilant if the free exchange of ideas over the Internet is to be maintained after the handover, according to Emily Lau, legislative councillor and member of The Frontier, a pro-democratic party in Hong Kong.

In particular, the IT industry needs to be on guard against self-censorship on the Internet, she said.

While the problem of self-censorship among Hong Kong's news media may be more visible than in other professions, the problem extends far beyond journalism to many other professions, Lau said. "Journalists are just the most obvious example," she noted.

The possibility of local ISPs removing politically sensitive material from their servers is very real, Lau said. "If this kind of self-censorship takes place, it is just digging our own graves," she said. "Local journalists and those involved in the computer world must be vigilant in order to prevent this from happening."

Lau expressed the view that after the handover, there is a possibility that some politically sensitive Web sites, including her own (http://www.emilylau.org.hk/), could run into censorship problems. "I hope that is not going to happen," she said.

For the Hong Kong government or ISPs to censor politically sensitive content on the Web would require changes to the present laws regulating content on the Internet. Currently, government regulations are focused on obscene and indecent materials on the Internet, Lau said. "These measures were put in place for the protection of minors," she noted. "The Legislative Council is not in favor of regulating [political content on] the Internet."

Moreover, any effort by the future Hong Kong government to suppress pro-democracy or human rights information on the Internet would "raise the alarm" among the international community, Lau said.

Democratic Party member and fellow legislative councillor Sin Chung-kai said that while the current government does not have the power to censor anything other than obscene materials on the Internet, the incoming Special Administrative Region [SAR] government could change this by simply passing new laws granting authorities wider powers of censorship.

How the future Hong Kong government will handle Internet-related issues after the handover is still uncertain. The future SAR government's attitude towards regulation of the Internet is still not clear, Lau said. "[Chief executive designate] C.H. Tung has not said much about this [issue]," she explained.

Charles Mok, general manager of local ISP HKNet, said that in his opinion, the two most dangerous issues that ISPs are going to face after the handover will be continued government ignorance of the Internet and the threat of self-censorship.

"[Self-censorship] is always possible. In terms of other media we are already seeing some tendency towards self-censorship. As far as ISPs are concerned there is always this possibility. I wouldn't deny that there is this possibility but I think that it is much better than in other media. If you compare the Internet to other media, for example, we haven't really seen any case of anyone being refused service by any service provider for any particular political or ideological reasons, as far as I know," Mok said.

Mok said that his company will not censor content on its servers unless forced to do so by the government.

HKnet will only remove materials after receiving a specific order from the government or police, Mok said. If such a case were to take place, Mok said that HKNet would not take any action without first consulting the company's legal advisor. "We will not impose any kind of censorship or pre-screening on any materials or anybody who wants to open an account with us.

They only thing we will say is that we will follow the law," Mok said. "But we will not take any action by ourselves." According to Mok, ISPs provide an open and public service that should be available to anyone with the money to use the service. While Mok acknowledged that some ISPs may take it upon themselves to censor political content on the Internet after the handover, he stressed the need for restraint.

"If any ISP took it upon themselves to do censorship before anyone asked them to, it would be the wrong thing to do," Mok said. According to a spokesman for the Office of the Chief Executive, Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa has not yet reviewed the current Internet regulations and does not presently have a position on the regulation of the Internet.

"Obviously this has been an ongoing issue with the present government and I imagine that will continue to be the case," the spokesman said.

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