Telegram will not hand over users' data to Hong Kong authorities, for now

Messaging service pledges moratorium on HK court data requests until 'international consensus' reached: HKFP

Hong Kong demonstrators at the Peak in September 2019.

Hong Kong demonstrators at the Peak in September 2019. (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Encrypted messenger platform Telegram said Sunday (July 5) that at present, it is refusing to hand over the data of Hong Kong users as the authorities come up with ever-newer ways to use the sweeping national security law foisted on the city by Beijing to arrest people for undesirable speech.

Less than a week after it came into force, the law is already altering the landscape of the city once known as a safe haven for those fleeing Chinese Communist Party rule. July 1 saw 10 arrested for alleged violations of the act, including expressing "secessionist" or "subversive" sympathies by carrying homemade pro-independence signs and Taiwanese flags.

The law has severely curtailed freedom of expression in Hong Kong, with many residents scrambling to their delete their social media accounts and chat histories or beef up privacy to avoid potential prosecution. The Hong Kong Public Libraries are even removing books by pro-democracy authors.

Telegram has played a central role in the organization and coordination of protest actions since the beginning of Hong Kong's anti-extradition movement last year — in no small part due to the safety it affords users through its encrypted messages. In Iran, where the app was once estimated to have 50 million users, it also facilitated the 2017 anti-corruption protests before ultimately being banned.

In an interview with Hong Kong Free Press on Sunday, Telegram marketing head Michael Ravdonikas said that in view of the new reality in the city, "Telegram does not intend to process any data requests related to its Hong kong users until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city."

According to Telegram's privacy policy, a user's IP address and phone number may be passed on to the government only if a court confirms that he or she is a "terror suspect," though the company says this has not yet occurred. Telegram was banned in Russia from 2018 until last month for refusing to share with the government the encryption keys needed to access users' data in line with the country's anti-terrorism laws.

"Terrorism" is one of four charges — along with "subversion," "secession," and "collusion" — laid out by the security law, which is open to interpretation by the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress.