On 6 February 2013, the Hong Kong government for the first time released information about internet user data and content removal requests to internet service providers in reply to a question by legislator Charles Mok. The release is regarded as the city’s first step into transparency reporting, although the information contained in it was still rudimentary. The release made headlines across news outlets the day after, despite the level of public concern for this issue being low. At that time, transparency reporting was still only a voluntary practice by six major tech firms including Google, which first started to report such data in 2010.
Three months later, Edward Snowden entered the international public sphere with his disclosures about a mass surveillance programme in the US. The computer professional previously working for the United States National Security Agency, revealed that citizens’ privacy was under threat because a programme code-named ‘Prism’ allowed the NSA to directly access personal data, email accounts, internet search terms and communication networks. Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple were involved.
The Snowden leaks underscored the privacy risk behind the development of the digital economy, and also brought up a crisis of confidence in both tech giants and governments, not only in the US.
Only two months after the Edward Snowden leaks, HKTR was officially launched on 10 August 2013 as an independent project under the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong. HKTR aims to provide a baseline documentation of the state of transparency between the Hong Kong government and technology and communications companies, with a focus on requests for user information and content takedown, which are normally sent for legal concerns, such as crime investigation and copyright violation. HKTR has worked actively with all parties in the internet and human rights communities: government officials, legislators, advocacy groups, scholars, lawyers and computer experts.
In 2013, the number of companies worldwide which released transparency reports tripled from six to 18, and went on to double to 39 in 2014.
On 26 September 2014, Hong Kong Transparency Report 2014 was published and made seven recommendations, including establishing and making internal guidelines public and extending the scope of disclosure.
Following the efforts of HKTR, the government has revealed an increasing amount of information, including in its replies to legislator’s questions. In 2013 the government rendered only aggregated numbers of a three-year period with seven features, but in 2016 it provided 13 features and biannually aggregated numbers, which is in line with international standards of transparency reporting.
Be that as it may, the government does still not proactively publish data on a regular basis. HKTR will continue to work with all stakeholders for a better protection of citizen’s privacy and free speech in the digital sphere.
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