U.S. tech giants face hard choices under Hong Kong’s new security law

By Brenda Goh and Pei Li

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) – U.S. tech giants face a reckoning over how Hong Kong’s security law will reshape their businesses, with their suspension of processing government requests for user data a stop-gap measure as they weigh options, people close to the industry say.

While Hong Kong is not a significant market for firms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, they have used it as a perch to reach deep-pocketed advertisers in mainland China, where many of their services are blocked. But the companies are now in the cross hairs of a national security law that gives China authority to demand that they turn over user data or censor content seen to violate the law – even when posted from abroad.

“These companies have to totally reassess the liability of having a presence in Hong Kong,” Charles Mok, a legislator who represents the technology industry in Hong Kong, told Reuters.

If they refuse to cooperate with government requests, he said, authorities “could go after them and take them to court and fine them, or imprison their principals in Hong Kong”.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have suspended processing government requests for user data in Hong Kong, they said on Monday, following China’s imposition of the new national security law on the semi-autonomous city.

Facebook, which started operating in Hong Kong in 2010, last year opened a big new office in the city.

It sells more than $5 billion a year worth of ad space to Chinese businesses and government agencies looking to promote messages abroad, Reuters reported in January. That makes China Facebook’s biggest country for revenue after the United States.

The U.S. internet firms are no strangers to governments demands regarding content and user information, and generally say they are bound by local laws.

The companies have often used a technique known as “geo-blocking” to restrict content in a particular country without removing it altogether.

But the sweeping language of Hong Kong’s new law could mean such measures won’t be enough. Authorities will no longer need to get court orders before requesting assistance or information, analysts said.

Requests for data about overseas users would put the companies in an especially tough spot.

“It’s a global law … if they comply with national security law in Hong Kong then there is the problem that they may violate laws in other countries,” said Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of Hong Kong’s Information Technology Federation.

CONTENT QUESTION

While the U.S. social media services are blocked in mainland China, they have operated freely in Hong Kong.

Other U.S. internet platforms are also rich with content that is banned in mainland China and may now be judged illegal in Hong Kong.

U.S. video streaming site Netflix, for example, carries “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”, a 2017 documentary on activist Joshua Wong whose books were removed from Hong Kong public libraries last week.

“Ten Years”, a 2015 film that has been criticized by Chinese state media for portraying a dystopian future Hong Kong under Chinese Communist Party control, is also available on its platform.

Netflix declined to comment.

Google’s YouTube is a popular platform for critics of Beijing. New York-based fugitive tycoon Guo Wengui has regularly voiced support for Hong Kong protesters in his videos. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

None of these companies has yet said how they will handle requests from Hong Kong to block or remove content, and the risk of being caught in political crossfire looms large.

“The foreign content players have to rethink what they display in Hong Kong,” said Duncan Clark, chairman at consultancy BDA China.

“The downside is very big if they get U.S. senators on their backs for accommodating. Any move they make will be heavily scrutinized.”

(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Pei Li; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Robert Birsel)

Cambridge Analytica and British parent shut down after Facebook scandal

(Reuters) – Cambridge Analytica, the firm embroiled in a controversy over its handling of Facebook Inc

Window cleaners work outside the offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London, Britain, March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Window cleaners work outside the offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London, Britain, March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

user data, and its British parent SCL Elections Ltd, are shutting down immediately after suffering a sharp drop in business, the company said on Wednesday.

The company will begin bankruptcy proceedings, it said, after losing clients and facing mounting legal fees resulting from the scandal over reports the company harvested personal data about millions of Facebook users beginning in 2014.

“The siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the Company’s customers and suppliers,” the statement said.

“As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business, which left Cambridge Analytica with no realistic alternative to placing the company into administration.”

Allegations of the improper use of data for 87 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. election campaign, has hurt the shares of the world’s biggest social network and prompted multiple official investigations in the United States and Europe.

“Over the past several months, Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of numerous unfounded accusations and, despite the company’s efforts to correct the record, has been vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas,” the company’s statement said.

The firm is shutting down effective Wednesday and employees have been told to turn in their computers, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier.

The Cambridge Analytica sign had been removed from the reception area of its London offices on Wednesday. At SCL’s Washington, D.C. office, a man declined to answer questions from a Reuters reporter.

After the announcement, Britain’s data regulator said it would continue civil and criminal investigations of the firm and will pursue “individuals and directors as appropriate” despite the shutdown.

“We will also monitor closely any successor companies using our powers to audit and inspect, to ensure the public is safeguarded,” a spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner’s Office said in a statement.

Cambridge Analytica was created around 2013 initially with a focus on U.S. elections, with $15 million in backing from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer and a name chosen by future Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, the New York Times reported.

Cambridge Analytica marketed itself as a provider of consumer research, targeted advertising and other data-related services to both political and corporate clients.

After Trump won the White House in 2016, in part with the firm’s help, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix went to more clients to pitch his services, the Times reported last year. The company boasted it could develop psychological profiles of consumers and voters which was a “secret sauce” it used to sway them more effectively than traditional advertising could.

One unanswered question in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether there was any collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia is whether Russia’s Internet Research Agency or Russian intelligence used data Cambridge Analytica obtained from Facebook or other sources to help target and time messages during the campaign that were anti-Hillary Clinton, pro-Trump and politically and racially divisive.

Bannon was a former vice president of the London-based firm, and Mueller has asked it to provide internal documents about how its data and analyses were used in the Trump campaign, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington, Andy Bruce in London and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Patrick Graham and Bill Rigby)