On 17 May, Hong Kong media reported that due to rampant doxxing, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD) is looking at drawing up a blacklist and blocking social media platform Telegram for repeatedly releasing doxxing information.
This news has drawn reactions from various fronts. Some experts believe that blocking Telegram will be technically difficult, and may damage Hong Kong’s image of openness and freedom. At the same time, many ordinary netizens are also curious: of all the social media platforms, why is the Hong Kong government targeting Telegram?
Such robust privacy capabilities has made Telegram a widely used instant messaging app for people all over the world for social and democratic movements...
Doxxing during anti-extradition law protests
Launched in 2013, Telegram claims to be the most secure messaging app in the world. Its unique feature is end-to-end encrypted chats, with its transmission servers spread out across the world. In addition, the app does not save messaging content on the cloud and supports scheduled deletion of chat records.
In other words, Telegram can protect users’ private conversations from third-party monitoring by governments or employers. Such robust privacy capabilities has made Telegram a widely used instant messaging app for people all over the world for social and democratic movements, and has brought a huge challenge for various governments, including Hong Kong.
During the anti-extradition law protests in Hong Kong in 2019, personal data of police personnel and pro-Beijing persons and their families were uploaded to social media platforms including Telegram. Some protest supporters and pan-democratic persons were also not spared.
That year, the Hong Kong High Court banned the posting of comments on Telegram that encouraged or incited violence, with intent to cause bodily harm or damage to property. Reports state that since 2019, the PCPD has found that most doxxing information come from Telegram channels.
Furthermore, there were over 200 cases of doxxing each week through Telegram, most involving political reasons or social movements, with targets including government officials, Legislative Council (LegCo) members, and ordinary citizens. Most of the unlawful information came from Taiwan users.
Last year, the PCPD handled 842 doxxing cases and opened investigations into 25 cases after doxxing became a criminal offence.
In 2021, the Hong Kong government amended the law to criminalise the publishing of personal information online without permission. Ada Chung Lai-ling of the PCPD said on 16 May in the LegCo that the authorities still receive many related complaints.
Last year, the PCPD handled 842 doxxing cases and opened investigations into 25 cases after doxxing became a criminal offence. Joint actions with the police have led to the arrest of six people, with another 66 cases currently under investigation.
Informed sources said that over the past month the PCPD has repeatedly asked Telegram to delete unlawful doxxing information but has not received a direct response. Unless Telegram responds positively in the short term, the PCPD will consider invoking clause 66L of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance to cease or restrict access to the messaging service on the platform, or even the entire platform.
Even as the authorities say that they are considering blocking Telegram, on 19 May, a 26-year-old computer technician in Hong Kong was sentenced to six and a half years of prison for inciting violence and vandalism through a Telegram channel during the anti-extradition law protests. This is the heaviest sentence for a case involving Telegram, and seems to be in line with the Hong Kong government’s stand.
During the sentencing, the judge said that the messages on the channel called on people to inflict criminal damage on stores that supported the Hong Kong police and government, public facilities and police quarters; paralyse traffic by creating roadblocks through arson; set fire to disrupt public order to support the four universities; paralyse the airport and main roads; organise demonstrations such as strikes from work and school; damage police vehicles with corrosive and flammable substances; and even provided instructions on making petrol bombs.
The judge also noted that the accused was the sole owner and one of the administrators of the channel. He had ignored the unlawful messages on the channel for nine months and conspired with others to disseminate incendiary messages.
... the company will not consider any requests for political screening or human rights restrictions such as those involving freedom of speech or freedom of association and assembly, and this applies to all countries and regions.
Telegram’s staunch stand to protect privacy
In response to queries, Telegram spokesperson Remi Vaughn said on 19 May that Telegram has always strongly opposed the sharing of private personal information, and restricts content related to doxxing. The company regularly deletes doxxing information from all over the world, addresses all reports made through the app or email, and takes appropriate action on content involving illegal pornography or incitement of violence.
However, Vaughn also said that the company will not consider any requests for political screening or human rights restrictions such as those involving freedom of speech or freedom of association and assembly, and this applies to all countries and regions.
Telegram founder Pavel Durov was born in St Petersburg in Russia. Handsome, young and wealthy, Durov exudes an air of strong liberalism. After graduating from university, he and his brother Nikolai created VK, a social media platform similar to Facebook.
Between late 2011 and early 2012, a series of protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s re-election broke out in Russia, and satirical cartoons criticising Putin went viral on VK. The Russian government demanded that Durov ban the VK accounts of these anti-government protesters. Instead, Durov’s “official” response was a photo of a dog in a hoodie with its tongue sticking out.
Durov’s confrontational attitude towards the government was met with retaliatory actions, which caused him to leave Russia and become a “world citizen”. He then put his mind to developing Telegram, which firmly protects personal privacy and freedom of expression.
However, Telegram’s privacy features not only made the app very popular among social activists but also made it a potential hotbed of terrorism. Even so, Durov held fast to his extreme pursuit of personal privacy protection.
A host once asked Durov at an event, “Do you sleep well at night knowing that terrorists use your platform?”
He replied, “That’s a very good question but I think that privacy, ultimately, and our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.”
Russia and Iran failed to ban Telegram
The tussle between the government and Telegram is not a challenge that only Hong Kong faces.
In 2018, the Russian government had once tried to block Telegram in the country on the grounds that it violated the law. But Telegram was able to bypass the ban by seeking help from other internet companies to provide services to Russian users.
When Russian authorities expanded the ban, Russian users found that they could not even access various websites that were unrelated to Telegram. The ban reportedly affected access to scientific journals, dealing a blow to the progress of scientific research. Moscow eventually lifted the ban on Telegram in 2020.
Iran tried to ban the use of Telegram in 2018 but ultimately failed as well.
Meanwhile, Indonesia banned the use of Telegram in July 2017 on the grounds that extremists could use this encrypted platform to propagate “radical and terrorist propaganda”. The ban was eventually lifted after Durov promised to address and shut down some terrorist-related public channels.
Impact of Telegram’s ban on Hong Kong
Based on a HK01 report, Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, questioned the effectiveness of Hong Kong’s ban. He highlighted Russia’s experience and stated, “Telegram can easily change its IP address. It can keep changing its IP address to ward off any blocking attempt. But this may disable other corporations using the same hosting platform.”
Fong also urged the Hong Kong government to think twice about its decision, and asked if the government would also consider blocking other softwares if doxxing content were transplanted to other social media platforms. He suggested that it is more practical and reasonable for the government to require Telegram to remove the doxxing content instead.
Apart from technical difficulties, analysts also worry that Hong Kong’s position as a regional information centre and international financial centre could be affected if it banned an instant messaging app that is used worldwide.
However, Duncan Chiu, member of the LegCo for the Technology and Innovation functional constituency, believes that since doxxing will be criminalised in Hong Kong, “every platform has the obligation to abide by the law in every country”. As Telegram failed to remove the doxxing messages as requested by the Office of the PCPD, it should bear the consequences.
As for how Telegram could be banned, Chiu said that it would be up to the authorities to decide. He mentioned that Indonesia had imposed their ban through servers.
Apart from technical difficulties, analysts also worry that Hong Kong’s position as a regional information centre and international financial centre could be affected if it banned an instant messaging app that is used worldwide. The ban could also damage its international image and reputation.
Bloomberg reported on 17 May that Telegram is the main platform for Hong Kongers to stay updated on court cases involving pro-democracy activists. Should the app be blocked, it could stoke fears of a “further encroach[ment] on civil liberties”.
The report also thinks that the possible ban on Telegram is part of a continuing effort by Beijing to exert its influence over Hong Kong.
If Hong Kong conforms to the mainland’s internet censorship, Hong Kong will soon see the day when it needs to use a VPN as well.
Hong Kong media reported that, while some Hong Kong netizens support blocking Telegram, several believe that people should have the right to freely use social media. They worry that if Telegram is successfully banned this time, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and other social media platforms could be next. If Hong Kong conforms to the mainland’s internet censorship, Hong Kong will soon see the day when it needs to use a VPN as well.
Telegram as drug?
In response to such worries, National People’s Congress deputy and vice-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong Chan Yung said during an interview that blocking Telegram will not affect freedom of the press and freedom of expression because the media does not rely on Telegram to operate. Besides, the ban is not aimed to protect politicians but rather every resident.
Chan added that while the government may not be able to fully block Telegram, he hopes that this action will still act as a good warning to others. Taking the crackdown on illegal drugs as an example, Chan asserted that even if the drugs cannot be completely eradicated, they must still be banned.
It remains a question if Telegram would be banned in Hong Kong or if its ban would be successful. While the app certainly poses a major challenge to the government, as a global metropolis and a shining example of the mainland’s "one country, two systems" policy, all eyes will be on Hong Kong as it searches for a better balance between control and openness while learning alternative approaches from elsewhere.
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