HONG KONG (16 December 2016) – Hong Kong Transparency Report 2016 released today finds that the Hong Kong government sent fewer user data and content removal requests to information and communication technology (ICT) companies in the past three years, with major international tech firms rejected 40% of the data requests.
Between 2013 and 2015, the number of annual user data and content removal requests from the Hong Kong government decreased from 6,008 to 4,637. The report finds that seven international ICT companies, including Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook and Verizon, accounted for 44% of all user data requests from the Hong Kong government, and rejected 40% of them.
Chart 1: User data and content removal requests by the HK government 2011-2015
Chart 2: Percentage of user data requests acceded to by ICT companies
Hong Kong Transparency Report (HKTR) is a project hosted by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC) at The University of Hong Kong. HKTR centres on how the Hong Kong government sends requests to information and communication technology (ICT) companies for their users’ data and to remove online content for purposes including crime prevention and law enforcement.
HKTR analysed the statistics released by the Hong Kong government in its replies to questions raised by Legislative Council members, and the data revealed in the transparency reports of seven major international tech firms, who received requests from the Hong Kong government. But no local firm has published such a report yet.
In the five government replies to legislators’ questions since 2013, Hong Kong Police Force—which accounted for 87% of all user data requests, with an average of 4,220 cases a year— never revealed how many of the requests were sent with court orders, or how many were complied with by companies.
The report urges the government to review user data and content removal request mechanisms, and routinely publish such statistics on biannual basis, which is an international transparency reporting standard. It also recommends that Hong Kong ICT companies publish regular transparency reports, in the same way that other 61 tech firms around the world do.
For detailed analysis, as well as policy recommendations, please refer to the full edition: Hong Kong Transparency Report 2016.
Executive summary of HKTR2016
- The HK government sent fewer user data and content removal requests to companies in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector
- The data from both the HK government and ICT companies shows the number of user data and content removal requests has been decreasing, from 6,008 (2013) to 4,637 (2015).
- The government faced resistance from seven overseas ICT companies (Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook and Verizon), whose transparency reports revealed that rejected 40% of the user data requests from the HK government. The seven companies accounted for 44% of user data requests from the Hong Kong government.
- The HK government sent more requests to social media, with some arrests for online speech
- An increasing number of requests have gone to the social media platform Facebook, in particular after the 2014 Occupy movement (increased by 212% in 2015).
- Data collected by HKTR (see jmsc.hku.hk/arrests-for-online-speech/) shows that at least 19 people were arrested for comments made online from June 2014 to November 2016. 10 of the instances involved Facebook, another seven were made on HKGolden, a Chinese language forum, and two on other websites. All of the 19 people arrested were charged under Section 161 of the Crimes Ordinance: “access to computer with criminal or dishonest intent”, and four of the people arrested have been found guilty.
- Improvements in government transparency
- The HK government has provided more information about its requests, with the number of items in its releases increasing from seven to 13. Biannual statistics first released in 2016 conform to international transparency reporting standards.
- Failure to report on compliance rate and court orders
- Hong Kong Police Force, whose requests accounted for 82% of the requests from the HK government to ICT companies, has not revealed how many of them were complied with by the companies, and has not explained a reason for this; government departments other than the Police said a total of 14 requests were rejected in 2015, whereas Google said it rejected 239 requests solely in 2015; the majority of rejected requests might therefore come from the Police.
- The Police Force and Inland Revenue Department failed to reveal how many requests were sent with court orders; no other department obtained a court order for requests in 2015; the Companies Registry revealed that an overseas company rejected a request in 2015 due to a lack of court order.
- The HK government should set up an independent review of government request practices.
- The HK government should establish internal request and transparency guidelines and make them public.
- The HK government should routinely release information about government requests on a biannual basis.
- Hong Kong ICT companies should publish transparency reports.
- Between 2011 and 2015, the Hong Kong government sent an average of 5,028 user data and content removal requests each year to ICT companies. 4,845 (92%) of them were user data requests and 389 (8%) were content removal requests.
- Crime prevention and detection (98%, 2015) was the major reason for user data requests; Hong Kong Police Force (87%), the Customs and Excise Department (11%) and Office of the Communications Authority (1%) were the three major requesters.
- Suspected illegal sale of medicine (59%, 2015), crime prevention (28%, 2015) and infringing activities (12%, 2015) were the three major reasons for content removal requests; the Department of Health (51%), Customs and Excise Department (33%) and Hong Kong Police Force (15%) were the three major requesters.
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