Israel ISP First Complies With, Then Defies, Hong Kong Security Law Over Pro-Democracy Website Takedown

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An Israeli web host company Wix.com initially complied with a Hong Kong police notice to close a pro-democracy website 2021hkcharter.com that is linked to Nathan Law, a political activist. The move came on the eve of the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident.

However, hours later, Wix backtracked and reinstated the website.

“The website was removed by mistake. We have reviewed our initial screening and have realized that the website never should have been removed and we would like to apologize. The website has been reinstated. We are also reviewing our screening process in order to improve and make sure that mistakes such as this do not repeat in the future,” Wix said in a statement emailed to Variety.

The takedown notice cited the National Security Law that was introduced in Hong Kong some 11 months ago. The law, outlawing treason, secession, sedition and subversion against mainland China’s Central People’s Government, specifies that it has global reach.

Many in Hong Kong opposed the law, fearing that it would fundamentally change the civic freedoms including freedom of speech and freedom of the press, previously enjoyed in the city.

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The police action against the HK Charter website demonstrates that even companies that are based outside Hong Kong’s normal ability to enforce its legislation can be affected.

The police wrote to Wix on May 24, 2021 requiring takedown action within 72 hours. It is not clear when Wix complied, though the site had been completely removed by June 3.

The text of the three-page letter from the police gave little specific explanation, but included screen capture images. It gave no means for the police interpretation to be questioned or challenged.

“There is reasonable ground for suspecting that the publication of an electronic message which is a website [https://hkcharter.com] contains message(s), is likely to constitute offences endangering national security and/or are likely to cause the occurrence of offences endangering nationals security (please refer to the screen capture in Annex A) namely secession and incitement to secession.” It then warned the ISP that it would be liable to a fine of HK$100,000 ($12,800) and a six month jail term, if it failed to comply.

Law, who was previously the youngest person elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and was a co-founder of pro-democracy movement Demosisto, is now living in self-imposed exile in the U.K.

“It shows that our freedom of speech is not protected even when we are not in Hong Kong and China,” said Law on Twitter.

Law later took to Twitter again and acknowledged the reinstatement. But he criticized Wix for the time it took to react.

Lawyer and activist Anthony Dapiran wrote on Twitter: “This is an act of global censorship beyond anything the PRC govt has attempted before. HK Police are not just asking the site to be blocked in HK: they are demanding the whole site be taken down. (AFAIK Beijing has not demanded closure of foreign website before? Has any other govt?”

Pro-democracy campaigners have held marches and vigils in Hong Kong every year until 2019 to remember the victims of the Tiananmen Square incident, when a student uprising in Beijing was put down with deadly force in front of the world’s media.

The candlelit vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park was banned last year with police citing public health reasons. Some of those who attended in spite of the ban, including Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, have since been jailed.

The Victoria Park vigil was banned again this year, with police again citing the risk associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Local media has reported that a fifth of the entire Hong Kong police force will be deployed Friday to prevent vigils around the city.

There has been no untraceable local transmission of the COVID-19 virus in Hong Kong for over a month.