Telegram app on the chopping block as city tightens internet grip

Hong Kong authorities are considering whether to restrict public access to the Telegram messaging service, the Sing Tao Daily reported, potentially rekindling fears that the former British colony is moving closer to Beijing-style internet controls.

The personal data protection commissioner is considering invoking regulations for the first time to restrict access to a platform he has found endemic to doxing, the local newspaper reported on Tuesday. The widespread doxing – or online exposure of sensitive and personal data – targeted government officials as well as citizens, the newspaper said, citing unidentified people.

If taken, such action is likely to stoke fears that national security legislation enacted in 2020 could further encroach on civil liberties, as part of an ongoing effort by Beijing to exert influence over the city. The report comes days after the appointment of a new leader who is a strong supporter of China’s imposed national security law. A Hong Kong government official did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

An overhaul of Hong Kong’s political institutions in recent years has already crushed the city’s pro-democracy movement and fueled warnings of the end of the city’s status as a freewheeling commercial hub. But authorities have so far avoided restrictions on the internet like in China, where a plethora of foreign services from Facebook to Google and Twitter are banned under what’s called the Great Firewall.

It’s unclear how the privacy watchdog intends to take such action. Blocking websites or apps often requires the cooperation of local service providers, such as in 2021 when Hong Kong police invoked national security law to block access to HKChronicles. Authorities can choose to block public access altogether or eradicate the app from city stores, the newspaper added, citing unidentified people.

If Hong Kong goes ahead, it would be the latest in a series of moves by authorities to crack down on doxing, after details of police and other officials were released by protesters in 2019. In September, Hong Kong has tightened data privacy laws to prevent doxing, a move that has scared off big tech giants.

Officials will consider public opinions before making a decision, the newspaper said. Telegram channels are still widely used to help residents keep up to date with court cases involving pro-democracy activists, a way for supporters of the 2019 anti-government protest to stay connected amid a crackdown on dissent by the authorities.

(Journalist and Bloomberg)