Apple under pressure to act after TikTok pulls out of Hong Kong

News

TikTok is to withdraw from Hong Kong app stores and Zoom will stop complying with city authorities’ data requests as technology companies react to the sweeping new national security laws imposed on the city by Beijing.

Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Google and Telegram have already said they are “pausing” cooperation with requests for user information, putting pressure on Apple, which says it is “assessing” the new law, to do the same.

TikTok, a video-sharing social-networking platform owned by the China-based ByteDance, has consistently denied sharing any user data with the Beijing authorities, and was adamant it did not intend to agree to such requests. The company expected to take several days to wind down its app operations in Hong Kong.

Despite its ownership, TikTok has never been available in China. Instead, ByteDance operates a more heavily censored version of the platform under the name Douyin. A TikTok spokesperson said the company had no plans to launch Douyin in Hong Kong.

TikTok’s decision, which a spokesperson said was made “in light of recent events”, came after the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the US was “certainly looking at” banning Chinese social media apps including TikTok.

Under the new law police can order social media platforms, publishers and internet service providers to remove any electronic message that is likely to constitute an offence endangering national security or is likely to cause such an offence to occur. Service providers failing to comply could face fines of up to HK $100,000 ($12,903) and jail terms of up to six months. Individuals who post such messages may also be asked to remove it, or face similar fines and a jail term of one year.

On Monday, WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram said they had halted cooperation with data requests from Hong Kong authorities pending human rights reviews.

Google announced a freeze on cooperation later that day, and on Tuesday morning Microsoft confirmed it too “was pausing our responses to these requests as we conduct our review”.

Hours after TikTok’s announcement, the video-conferencing platform Zoom told Hong Kong Free Press it would also stop complying with data requests. A spokesman for Zoom said the company “supports the free and open exchange of thoughts and ideas”.

Zoom was criticised last month after it admitted to suspending or cancelling the accounts of Hong Kong activists on the request of Chinese authorities. Following the backlash, the company said it would stop complying with such requests but would also explore technology to block users from inside the country.

The freezing of relations between technology companies and Hong Kong law enforcement bears a resemblance to the erection of the Chinese “Great Firewall”. During the 2000s, many tech firms gradually ended cooperation with the Chinese authorities, spurred by the arrest of a journalist, Shi Tao, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail based on the contents of his Yahoo Mail account, handed over by the company in 2004.

Apple remains the largest US-based company to continue cooperation with law enforcement in Hong Kong. Unlike many of its competitors, the company has significant business on the Chinese mainland, where it has a large market for its devices and a substantial manufacturing base.

It has previously been criticised over its closeness to the Hong Kong authorities. In October 2019, its chief executive, Tim Cook, defended a decision to remove a mapping app used by protesters at the request of the police.

In a statement an Apple spokesman said: “Apple has always required that all content requests from local law enforcement authorities be submitted through the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty in place between the United States and Hong Kong. As a result, Apple doesn’t receive content requests directly from the Hong Kong government. Under the MLAT process, the US Department of Justice reviews Hong Kong authorities’ requests for legal conformance. We’re assessing the new law, which went into effect less than a week ago, and we have not received any content requests since the law went into effect.”