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
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
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
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
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
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