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'Website block threatens freedom of information'

2021-01-14 HKT 22:07
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  • An IT expert expressed concern that even online news outlets could be blocked in future, following the first confirmation that authorities have censored a local website (pictured) under the national security law for the first time.
    An IT expert expressed concern that even online news outlets could be blocked in future, following the first confirmation that authorities have censored a local website (pictured) under the national security law for the first time.
The confirmation on Thursday that the authorities have ordered an internet service provider to block access to a local website under the national security law for the first time augurs more online censorship, a data scientist has warned, saying unless such powers are clearly defined even internet news outlets could be barred in future.

Wong Ho-wa, an Election Committee member who represents the information technology industry said the blocking of the HKChronicles website by Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN) – and presumably other service providers – has already affected other unrelated websites just because they share the same IP address.

"I am really worried that if their action continues, like more websites being blocked due to the same reason, then potentially other innocent websites can no longer be accessible to our Hong Kong citizens. As a result, our freedom to information is really affected," he said.

Wong also expressed concern that without a clear definition of what exactly is allowed online, even news websites could be blocked in the future over alleged national security violations.

"The official government still has no clear clarification or justification on their action or their rationale behind. Would the internet press be also be affected in the longer term? That we don't know," he said.

Article 43 of the national security law gives police the power to order internet service providers to remove any material published online deemed be a national security breach.

Multiple media reports previously cited sources saying that the pro-protester site had been blocked, but HKBN only confirmed this on Thursday.

"We have disabled the access to the website in compliance with the requirement issued under the National Security Law," a spokesperson said in an email to Reuters, adding that the action was taken on January 13.

HKChronicles, which publishes information and photos of police officers and pro-establishment figures, had said that internet service providers had started blocking access to the site as early as last week.

Lento Yip, the chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association, said he had expected that authorities would make requests to block websites after the implementation of the national security law.

He said internet service providers would have to follow the law, though they are faced with some technical difficulties.

"When we continue to block the website, the netizens would continue to have other means to access the website. There will be peripheral damages. When you block an IP address, maybe some other websites, some other victims will suffer as well. So operationally, it will become more complicated and challenging, but the effect may not be as good as the law enforcement wishes," he said.

Yip noted that other foreign countries also have similar laws which allow local authorities to block access to certain websites to combat terrorism.

But he said making such requests more transparent would help the public and internet service providers have a better understanding of the standards under which websites are blocked.