WhatsApp and Telegram are reportedly refusing any requests for user data from the Hong Kong authorities because they can’t be confident they won’t be misused.
Now that China has passed a law allowing it to impose the same level of Orwellian supervision over HK as they do the rest of the country, there’s every reason to assume it will try to persecute people for private messages. What’s the point in passing such a law other than to stick citizens in Room 101 for having heretical thoughts about democracy, freedom, etc?
Messaging services and apps in general often have some kind of stipulation that they will hand over user data to national authorities if it’s part of a counter-terrorism effort. The problem with despotic regimes is that they consider any opposition to effectively be terrorism, since it challenges their authority. It’s therefore reasonable for app companies operating in HK to assume anti-terrorism laws will be abused in order to punish dissent.
HK has been a minefield for US tech companies even since China started the process that has culminated in the passing of this law. Last year Apple was torn between respecting the rights of its users and kowtowing to China over an app that was being used by protesters in HK. Any company that operates or has customers in HK is going to have to make a decision about accommodated the malign wishes of the Chinese Communist Party sooner or later.
The moves by WhatsApp and Telegram appear to be temporary, but it’s hard to imagine what reassurances the pro-China HK authorities could provide that would justify them handing over user data. China is the worlds biggest consumer market, but the negative PR from being seen to assist in the persecution of HK residents could result in even greater damage to their businesses. They’re in a difficult position, but sitting on the fence is increasingly looking like it’s not an option.