JMSC Tracks Government Requests for Online User Information

The Journalism and Media Studies Centre has  launched a pioneering project, “The Hong Kong Transparency Report,” to track the Hong Kong Government’s requests for Internet user data and content removal. The website, which was launched in September with support from Google Inc., will also track how many such requests are acceded to by the Internet companies, and will examine the implications  for government accountability and personal privacy that these requests might have.

Compliance by Request Type

Compliance by Type (要求成功率)

The website reports that the Hong Kong government made at least 14,453 requests to online service providers for disclosures of user information over a recent three-year period, and at least another 7,003 requests for removal of content posted online during the same time frame.  A preliminary analysis shows that some 86 percent of requests for user data came from the Hong Kong Police Department, and 96 percent of requests to remove content were sent by the Department of Health.

According to Darcy Christ, Digital Specialist at the JMSC and lead researcher for the project, one of the goals of the HKTR is to increase overall Internet transparency. “This will help us all understand how our information is used,” he said.

Hong Kong’s is the first government in Asia to release data on its requests to Internet organizations. While the government has been applauded for this, much data, such as the names of the online service providers, websites and platforms, is often withheld. Also absent is the specific number of requests acceded to and their dates.   The HKTR has been able to fill in some of the gaps, and estimates that OSP’s have acceded to 73.61 percent of user data requests and 99.97 percent of content removal requests so far.

With such high accession rates, the project will now be asking why this is being done without court orders and without better public scrutiny.  “We’d also like to see more detailed explanations for the reasons the requests were made, as well as to encourage the private sector, primarily local ISP/OSPs, to release transparency reports,” Christ said.

As the project moves forward, the HKTR is inviting the public and students to participate in its efforts. “As citizens, we have a right to understand what our governments are doing on our behalf,” Christ says.  “In the end, we may not be willing to accept a certain level of intrusion if we consider the tradeoff is too great.”