Hong Kong CNN Business  — 

Changes to Hong Kong’s data protection laws could force some companies to stop providing services in the city, according to an industry group that represents some of the world’s top tech firms.

The prospect of a retreat from Hong Kong was floated in a letter released publicly this week by the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), a Singapore-based association that counts Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR) and Google (GOOGL) as members.

The memo, which is dated June 25 and sent by the group to Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner for personal data, Ada Chung Lai-ling, pushes back on a recently introduced bill that seeks to crack down on doxxing.

The practice refers to the sharing of private information of individuals online, usually to open them up as targets for harassment.

The Hong Kong government says this has been a particularly widespread issue since 2019, when the city was engulfed by mass protests. Officials say it can lead to people’s photographs, identity card information and addresses being given out without their consent.

Between June 2019 and May 2021, more than 5,700 doxxing-related cases were handled by the Hong Kong’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data. But the number of incidents have fallen off since 2019, according to the privacy watchdog. It said it received 1,036 doxxing complaints in 2020, a 76% drop from the year prior.

In its memo, the AIC said that it was concerned with several parts of the bill, including a provision that it said suggested the government could prosecute “the local staff of overseas platforms in case of failure to comply with the authorities’ removal requests.”

The bill proposes that “any person who provides services in Hong Kong to Hong Kong residents” can be served a notice directing an online platform to “rectify” what it calls “doxxing content.” It also proposes that the privacy commissioner be able to prosecute failures to comply with those requests.

The legislation, which was introduced in May by Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, also proposes that offenders face a fine of up to 1 million Hong Kong dollars (about $128,700) and imprisonment of up to five years upon conviction.

“If it remains the [government’s] intention to hold the employees of the local subsidiaries or entities liable for doxxing content, we seek clarification on the legal basis of doing so,” the AIC wrote in its memo.

“The only way to avoid these sanctions for technology companies would be to refrain from investing and offering their services in Hong Kong, thereby depriving Hong Kong businesses and consumers, whilst also creating new barriers to trade. Thus, the possibility of prosecuting subsidiary employees will create uncertainties for businesses and affect Hong Kong’s development as an innovation and technology hub.”

Facebook, Twitter and Google referred CNN Business to the AIC when asked for comment.

The coalition stressed that the letter represented views from more than 15 members, not any single company. It said that it was inaccurate to claim that certain firms had any plans to leave Hong Kong, and expressed a desire to work with the government on the legislation.

“We wish to stress that doxxing is a matter of serious concern,” the AIC said in its memo, while requesting a virtual meeting with Chung. It added that the bill could result in “risks for freedom of expression and communication.”

The Wall Street Journal was first to report news of the letter.

Data protection concerns

Hong Kong’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD) said Monday that doxxing had become “rampant” and “tested the limits of morality and the law.”

The agency also hit back at suggestions that the changes would have “any bearing on free speech.”

“The amendments only concern unlawful doxxing acts,” it said. “The scope of the doxxing offence will be clearly set out in the amendments.”

The PCPD added that it “strongly rebuts any suggestion that the amendments may in any way affect foreign investment in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong has faced questions over its future as a global business hub as the former British colony grapples with a historic political crisis.

The city has for decades been a critical hub for foreign businesses looking to engage with China. While Beijing largely regulates how overseas companies do business in the mainland, Hong Kong has traditionally offered them the ability to operate without heavy restrictions on investment and other operations.

Unlike in mainland China, residents of the city are also able to access the internet more freely, with the use of Western platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Google.

But in recent months, those companies have expressed reservations over legislative changes in Hong Kong.

Last July, Facebook, Google and Twitter all said that they would pause the review of requests for user data from the city’s government after the introduction of a national security law imposed by China. The law bans any activity Beijing deems to constitute sedition, secession and subversion, and allows Chinese state security to operate in the territory.

The companies confirmed last month that there had been no change in their position.

The PCPD told CNN Business that it sought to introduce the anti-doxxing bill for consideration by the city’s lawmakers within this legislative session, which ends in October.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam acknowledged the latest apprehensions at a press conference Tuesday, saying that “there is wide support that doxxing should be legislated against.”

“All pieces of legislation … will attract concern,” she said. “If online companies express their concern, I am sure the privacy commissioner is more than happy to meet with them and to listen to their concerns.”

In its statement Monday, the office of the commissioner confirmed that it would meet with representatives of the coalition soon “to better understand their views.”

— Sarah Faidell, Joshua Berlinger and Simran Vaswani contributed to this report.