Removal of special status by US ‘double-edged sword’, says HK govt

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Trump signs order to strip social media firms of legal immunity AFP - May 29, 2020 WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump signed an order Thursday seeking to strip social media giants like Twitter of legal immunity for content on their platforms in a move slammed by his critics as a legally dubious act of political revenge. The executive order calls on government regulators to evaluate if online platforms should be eligible for liability protection for content posted by their millions of users. If enforced, the action would upend decades of precedent and treat internet platforms as “publishers” potentially liable for user-generated content. Trump told reporters at the White House he acted because big tech firms “have had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences.” “We can’t let this continue to happen,” Trump said. The move comes a day after an angry tirade from the US leader against Twitter after the platform for the first time labelled two of his tweets, on the increasingly contentious topic of mail-in voting, with fact-check notices, calling them misleading. “In those moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform and they become an editor with a viewpoint,” Trump said. “And I think we can say that about others also, whether you’re looking at Google, whether you’re looking at Facebook, perhaps others.” ‘President’s speech police’ Critics said however Trump has no authority to regulate private internet operators or change the law known as Section 230 which backers say has allowed online platforms like Facebook and Twitter to flourish. The American Civil Liberties Union called Trump’s order “a blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president.” Eric Goldman, director of the High-Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, said the order was “more about political theatre than about changing the law.” The order “is not legally supportable – it flies in the face of more than 900 court decisions,” Goldman said. The White House seeks to sidestep the provisions giving internet firms immunity by treating them as publishers operating in part of a “public square.” “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see,” the executive order said. While the Trump order would not prevent platforms from moderating content, it could open them up to a flood of lawsuits from anyone who claims to be harmed by content posted online. Critics said the action represents a dangerous effort by the government to regulate online speech. “Social media can be frustrating. But an Executive Order that would turn the FCC into the President’s speech police is not the answer,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of Federal Communications Commission, one of the agencies tasked with enforcing the executive order. Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group, warned that “retaliation against the private sector for fact-checking leadership is what we expect from foreign autocracies, not the US.” Wading into quagmire Internet firms have denied Trump’s claims of bias and point to his massive social media following. But the president’s move plays into his narrative ahead of his difficult November reelection battle that liberal forces are trying to censor Republicans. Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican and fierce critic of social media, said that if online firms “are going to editorialise and censor and act like traditional publishers, they should be treated like traditional publishers and stop receiving the special carve-out from the federal government.” But Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, one of the authors of the 1996 law, called Trump’s order a “plainly illegal” political ploy. “Trump is desperately trying to steal for himself the power of the courts and Congress to rewrite decades of settled law around Section 230. All for the ability to spread lies,” Wyden said. Fact check fury A wider debate has long been underway on the power that social media companies wield and what responsibility they bear for posts that are misleading or hurtful. Internet services like Twitter and Facebook have been struggling to root out misinformation, while at the same time keeping their platforms open to users. The massive amount of unverified content in circulation has prompted a rise in fact-checking operations, including a vast Facebook effort in which AFP plays a role. After long resisting calls to censure Trump over his frequent factually inaccurate posts, Twitter on Tuesday flagged the president for the first time for making false claims. Trump had tweeted – without any evidence – that more mail-in voting would lead to what he called a “Rigged Election” this November. Some analysts claimed the president’s arguments against Twitter had turned upside down the interpretation of the constitution’s First Amendment, designed to prevent the government from limiting free expression. “The First Amendment applies to the government not to private actors like Twitter,” wrote law professors Laurence Tribe of Harvard and Joshua Geltzer of Georgetown University in the Washington Post. “Trump is wrong on the law, but this time he’s even more wrong than usual. There is someone violating the First Amendment on Twitter, but it’s not Twitter – it’s Trump.”

Reuters

May 29, 2020

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s government warned Washington that withdrawing its special US status, which has underpinned the city as a global financial hub, could be a “double-edged sword” and urged the US to stop interfering in internal affairs.

The statement came as US President Donald Trump is due to announce later on Friday his response to the Chinese parliament’s advancement of national security legislation for Hong Kong, which democracy activists and Western countries fear could erode the city’s freedoms.

The former British colony enjoys a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“Any sanctions are a double-edged sword that will not only harm the interests of Hong Kong but also significantly those of the US,” the city’s government said late on Thursday.

It added that from 2009 to 2018, the US trade surplus with Hong Kong was the biggest among all its trading partners, totalling US$297 billion of merchandise and 1,300 US firms are based in the city.

Beijing says the new legislation will tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city.

It could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases there.

The plan has ignited the first big protests in Hong Kong for months, as thousands of people took to the streets this week, prompting police to fire pepper pellets in the heart of the city’s financial district to disperse crowds.

The US Department of State said in a report on Thursday it could “no longer certify that Hong Kong continues to warrant (differential) treatment” from Beijing.

Trump’s top economic adviser Larry Kudlow warned that Hong Kong, which has enjoyed special privileges under US law based on its high degree of autonomy from Beijing, may now need to be treated like China on trade and other financial matters.

In a separate statement on Friday, published in several local newspapers, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam urged “fellow citizens” to “join hands to pursue our dreams while putting aside our differences”.

She said the legislation was needed because of a “terrorist threat” and because organisations advocating “independence and self-determination” have challenged the authority of Beijing and local governments and pleaded for foreign interference.

The five demands of last-year’s pro-democracy protest movement included universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into police handling of the protests, but not independence.

A minority of protesters waved “Hong Kong independence” flags.

Independence is anathema for Beijing.

The security legislation, along with a bill to criminalise disrespect for China’s national anthem, are seen by protesters as the latest attempt by Beijing to tighten its control on the city.

The security legislation, expected to be enacted before September, was condemned also by Britain, Australia, Canada and others.

Britain said it will give greater visa rights to British national overseas passport holders from Hong Kong unless China suspends its plans.