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Internet Powers Collide in Hong Kong

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Here we are again, facing a collision between America’s online superpowers and China.

My colleague Paul Mozur wrote about Facebook, Google, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, Twitter and some other digital companies’ saying they would temporarily stop handing over people’s information when the Hong Kong authorities ask for it.

The companies were responding to a vaguely worded new law that civil liberties advocates worry would extend China’s internet censorship and digital surveillance to Hong Kong, which has long been a bastion of online freedom. If companies go along with the new law, the fear is that someone in Hong Kong could be jailed for a tweet. If they don’t comply, their employees could go to jail.

Saying no to the law could force those internet companies to shut down service in Hong Kong. It would also be a public defiance of China’s government that we rarely see from global companies. No one knows what happens next.

Let me take a step back and talk about the constant tugs of war that U.S. online companies face between their made-in-America principles and U.S. laws, and the rules and standards of all the countries in which they do business.

What does Netflix do when the Turkish government doesn’t want scenes of smoking or vulgar gestures shown in its country? What does Twitter do when an American tweets something that might be legal in the United States but isn’t under Germany’s strict laws against hate speech?

Yeah, it’s complicated. U.S. internet companies face hard calls as they decide how and whether to comply with — or sometimes push back against — the divergent laws and norms of each country they operate in without violating their own missions.

When it comes to China, those complications are multiplied by a thousand. The government and some of its supportive citizens are willing to punish global companies and organizations like the National Basketball Association that don’t go along with the government’s positions.

Companies with business in China have twisted themselves in knots, for example, trying not to offend the government by appearing to side with Hong Kong’s demonstrators pressing for autonomy.

U.S. internet companies have been on the fringes of these dilemmas because many of their websites and apps are effectively banned in China.

This Hong Kong law, however, presents the U.S. internet powers with one of those hard choices multiplied by a thousand. If they go along with China’s new law, they risk sacrificing their principles of free expression, and will likely face backlash from American politicians and their employees.

If they don’t comply, China might make it impossible for the American internet companies to continue to operate in Hong Kong. (TikTok, owned by a Chinese internet company, said it would withdraw from Hong Kong entirely.) The Chinese government might seize the tech companies’ offices in the city or even arrest its employees. You can imagine how the U.S. government would respond to that.

In his article, Paul suggested there might be a middle ground, allowing the U.S. companies to stay in Hong Kong and work around the law without openly flouting it. No matter the outcome, this won’t be the last collision between the internet’s two great powers.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested in a Fox News interview that Americans should be cautious about using social media apps from Chinese companies such as TikTok.

Some American politicians and government agencies have worried that TikTok, owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance, is a way for the Chinese government to collect data about Americans or spread a sanitized view of China in the rest of the world. Pompeo suggested that the White House would have more to say about this soon.

I want to take Pompeo’s concerns about TikTok seriously, but it’s hard to know whether we should. I’ve written before that U.S. government officials haven’t provided evidence to back their warnings that TikTok is essentially an information harvesting conduit for China’s government. (TikTok says those fears are unfounded.)

And because of the continuing political and economic tussles between the United States and China — see the section above — it’s hard to know when the U.S. government has valid security concerns about apps or mobile phone equipment from Chinese companies, and when these are bogus fears motivated by nationalism.

So here’s a suggestion for Pompeo and other U.S. officials and politicians: Instead of scary rhetoric, show us why we should be worried.

  • Can internet signals predict coronavirus outbreaks? My colleague Benedict Carey writes about scientists who are using social media activity, location data from our smartphones and Google searches to come up with forecasts of Covid-19 outbreaks a couple weeks before infections start to register.

    I’ve written before about problems with trying to spot seasonal flu outbreaks from patterns in Google searches, but these researchers say they’ve figured out how to work around some inherent flaws in using our digital data to predict disease.

  • We might get a better look at a mysterious tech company: Palantir is one of those companies that tech watchers like me can’t stop talking about. Its software helps spies and police do their jobs, and there are constant questions that the software either isn’t as useful as the company says, or is so invasive that it’s creating a virtual Big Brother. (It’s possible that both are true.)

    Palantir has now started on the road to a possible initial public offering, my colleague Erin Griffith writes, and if it goes through with it we’ll all get a closer look at the company’s inner workings.

  • A word of caution: Some readers raised a concern about Monday’s tech tip, which walked through the steps for using a fan with a smart plug. As with any use of an electrical device, readers should check the current and power rating on their AC or heating unit and confirm the smart plug is sufficient to meet the demands of the unit.

I have previously confessed my love of red pandas. Well, please meet the Oregon Zoo’s new arrival, a tiny and wriggly red panda baby.

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