Big Brother makes a grab for control of the internet

SCMP December 2 2008

The control freaks running Hong Kong's increasingly politicised bureaucracy are close to snaring another victim: the internet. The medium which should be a key part of the city's intellectual and artistic freedom is set to come under the direct control of government appointees. It is a major blow to Hong Kong's development as a centre for information technology and free media.

At stake is the domain name '.hk'. Hitherto, this has been administered by the Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation (HKIRC), a non-profit company run by representatives of internet users and providers, plus universities, with one government appointee. It has performed efficiently and at low cost.

The government is moving to take control on the grounds that the .hk domain name is a public resource. Indeed, it is just that - which does not give the government the right to control it rather than allow the public at large, and the internet community in particular, to run it.

Under the scheme, instead of 13 directors from varied interests, it will in future have eight; four elected by local stakeholders and four appointed by the government, including a chairman with the deciding vote.

The underhand way in which the government has gone about this is typical. In 2006, it commissioned a consultancy study into the structure of .hk. It concluded that 'an arm's-length, non-profit organisation should be retained in the near term'.

The government appeared to accept this but so twisted the notion of 'arm's length' that it came up with a system that puts Hong Kong not in the same category of independent management as most developed countries but in one that follows the Singaporean and mainland model of state control.

The government then conducted what it claims was a public consultation, but this was kept so quiet that the public was largely unaware of it. Some HKIRC directors initially objected to the move, saying the board could be reduced to eight members, but all should be elected. However, the government was determined to grab control. It made it clear that the HKIRC's mandate was in government hands and, if it did not agree to the proposal, the government could terminate the corporation's right to administer .hk. Despite opposition from some members, directors reluctantly agreed to the government formula, to ensure the 'smooth continuity of operation of .hk domain names' and the continued employment of staff.

Belatedly, this issue has received some media attention which has shown up further official dishonesty. In reply to one critic, the government claimed that 'top domain names are all managed or supervised by the government and Hong Kong is no exception'. But its own consultancy report notes that, for example, in Australia, Canada, Taiwan, and Germany, not-for-profit, non-governmental organisations were in charge. Only on the mainland and in Singapore was domain management a direct government responsibility.

The government will doubtless claim that its appointees are 'independent' - just like the other unaccountable stooges on quasi-official bodies. But they will be able to use control of domain names for political purposes and lean on the internet service providers to co-operate in tracking 'unpatriotic' content. This process may have already begun with a review of the Control of Obscene Articles Ordinance to clamp down on internet pornography. It will surely not succeed in that, but new legislation could easily be misused to crack down on other content.

No wonder Hong Kong failed in its bid to host the 2009 Asia/Pacific regional meeting of ICANN - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This body, which is the global organiser of domain names, is a non-profit NGO. ICANN's spirit is a world away from that of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's apparatchiks. ICANN took its conference to Sydney.




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