Speaking at her first visit to the Legislative Council of the new year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also teased a slate of other legal amendments that would require district councillors to take oaths of allegiance, allow qualified overseas doctors to be registered in the city, pave the way for rent control in subdivided flats and improve fire safety in old residential buildings,
“In the past two years, social turmoil and Covid-19 led to issues on the internet, especially on social media. We saw acts such as doxxing, making hate and discriminatory speech, and disseminating fake news,” Lam told lawmakers in the 90-minute question and answer session.
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“It would be difficult to formulate a complete legislative proposal in a short time, but we would give priority to the more imminent issues such as doxxing activities.”
One of the more notable pieces of disinformation to grip the city in the past year were rumours at the start of the pandemic of impending shortages of supplies, which sent Hongkongers into a panic-buying frenzy – a situation also seen in other countries.
But communications scholars warned of the dangers of resorting to legal means to combat fake news – as opposed to promoting public education or independent fact-checking bodies – while journalists called on the government not to misuse any new laws to curtail press freedom.
Lam said her administration would take cues from unspecified foreign countries in updating Hong Kong’s legislation, while stepping up enforcement of existing laws for the time being. A proposal addressing doxxing is expected to be submitted to Legco sometime this year.
Without going into details, Lam said one possibility was to give more power to the city’s privacy commissioner to demand social media platforms and websites remove offending content, and investigate cases.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data said it had handled 5,560 doxxing cases between June 2019, when the social unrest broke out, and last month and referred more than 1,460 alleged breaches to police for investigation.
The office also said it had referred to the Department of Justice 59 cases which involved suspected violations of injunctions forbidding doxxing of police and judicial officers, among others.
Lam cited a recent survey published by the watchdog that found two-thirds of respondents were in favour of amendments to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.
She also vowed to review legal requirements and administrative arrangements for viewing public records, claiming the current mechanism had facilitated doxxing.
Such information, including databases for property ownership, vehicle registration and corporate transactions, has become an area of contention after police arrested a journalist for accessing traffic records for a report last November.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association on Thursday said it feared that any moves to restrict access to public records would hinder reporters’ work under the pretext of combating doxxing, and urged Lam to exempt members of the press.
“The press access the registration system for reporting purposes, which is completely different to the doxxing behaviour … repeatedly mentioned by the government. A considerable amount of news reports in the past concerning matters of great public interest were unveiled through public registrations, including [ones on] election fraud and unauthorised building works belonging to officials,” its spokesman said.
Laws regulating fake news, meanwhile, have proved controversial elsewhere, with critics saying they were often used by governments to crack down on political dissent.
In Singapore, for instance, an opposition politician was asked to change a Facebook post criticising state education spending in 2019 under the Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.
Francis Lee Lap-fung, director of Chinese University’s journalism school, said one of the problematic aspects of such laws was the question of who determines whether a piece of information was fake, and how.
Sometimes, he added, people may unwittingly pass on false information. Other times, it may be in the public interest to circulate unverified, but important, information without waiting for confirmation.
“Also, how do you tell between fake news and fake news that warrants criminal sanctions?” he added.
His colleague, Tsui Lok-man, an assistant professor who specialises in freedom of expression, said any such legislation should come with a “narrow and specific scope”.
He suggested the government should instead invest in improving the public’s media literacy, or pay a third-party fact checking organisation to combat bogus information.
Meanwhile, Lam on Thursday also reiterated that all district councillors – most of them opposition activists who entered office after a landslide victory at the height of the 2019 social unrest – would have to pledge allegiance to the city, a move critics fear could pave the way for mass disqualifications.
She went on to insist that the way district councils had allocated funds last year was highly unsatisfactory, adding the Home Affairs Department was currently reviewing various budget items.
She was also all smiles as she described how much she appreciated that the Legislative Council had returned normalcy in the near-complete absence of opposition lawmakers.
Last year, practically the entire opposition camp resigned in protest after some of their colleagues were summarily ousted following a directive from Beijing. The government had long blamed the bloc for bringing the legislative body to a standstill with filibustering tactics.
Lam said that if Legco were still in the same shape it was in a year ago, her administration “would not dare to propose at least two or three of the measures, such as whatever online crackdown or oath-taking requirements that will come with consequences”.
“This is the legislature Hong Kong should cherish,” she continued, adding that the remaining pro-establishment lawmakers could continue to scrutinise her and her officials as long as they allowed them to get things done.
“Some members are of the view that some principal officials’ answers to oral questions are too lengthy, discussion papers are submitted too late to panels and answers of some officials to meetings are too vague,” she said.
She said she had asked Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung to monitor officials’ performance in Legco meetings.
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