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Hong Kong netizens worry copyright bill will limit freedom of expression

They are known to one another mostly by avatars or screen names. They tend to transmit their thoughts in digital memes.

But Wednesday night, these Hong Kong netizens took a break from hunching over their smartphones and desktops and hit the streets to express themselves the old-fashioned way.

Gathering for a rally outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, with a banner nearby proclaiming, “Fight for the freedom of the next generation,” several hundred raised their voices against a copyright bill they say could further chill freedom of expression in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

Protesters said they fear the legislation could be wielded as a tool of political prosecution against those who use memes to mock politicians, and even expose them to criminal charges.

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“The law has a lot of gray areas and will open up a can of worms,” said Alan Fan, 30, as he stood with a friend watching a live telecast of the legislature’s proceedings. “I could get in trouble even if I share a link with friends.”

Proponents of the bill, five years in the making and scheduled for a council vote Thursday, consider it long overdue and necessary to adapt the city’s copyright law to the Internet Age. To them, the legislation is intended is to crack down on large-scale infringement for commercial gain, not individuals parodying officials to get their views across.

Over the last two years, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has lobbied hard for the bill’s passage to combat digital piracy.

“Current law doesn't allow us to take action against Internet infringement,” said Belinda Lui, the chamber's spokeswoman on intellectual property issues. “Local businesses carrying American content are being harmed.”

Lui said illegal video streaming and other forms of online piracy have run rampant as a result.

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However, even some of those who have been advocating for robust copyright protection online said the bill casts such a wide net that Internet users see themselves as the small fish that can easily be caught.

“They drafted the legislation so broadly that it covers most of the activities the netizens have been doing,” said Peter K. Yu, law professor and codirector of the Center for Law and Intellectual Property at Texas A&M University School of Law. “Just saying ‘we’re not going to prosecute you’ doesn’t address the concerns of the netizens. Most people now interpret this as something that targets their freedom of speech.”

An estimated 1 million of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people have signed a petition opposing the bill. The city is one of the world’s most wired, with a broadband penetration of 84%, on par with the United States.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule 18 years ago but has been allowed to keep a wide range of civil liberties and its British common law system under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.” Hong Kongers enjoy unfettered Internet freedom and are not subject to mainland China’s infamous Great Firewall, which bars access to a whole host of popular websites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Mainland censors also scrub cyberspace clean of any content the Community Party deems controversial or sensitive.

Hong Kong’s status as a haven for Internet freedom was illustrated in 2010 when Google shuttered its mainland-based search service and relocated it here amid censorship concerns.

Since then, there has been growing anxiety in Hong Kong that freedom of expression and of the press are being eroded.

This year, the home of the owner of a pro-democracy newspaper was targeted by a Molotov attack. Last week, the city’s oldest and largest English-language daily, the South China Morning Post, was taken over by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, with a stated goal to cover China in an “objective” manner.

And in a report released two weeks ago, Google revealed it had rebuffed Hong Kong police’s request last year during the city’s pro-democracy sit-ins to take down a YouTube video that appeared to show protesters being beaten in police wagons. That disclosure served to fuel popular concern that the new copyright legislation would enable the government to tighten the screws on raucous expressions online in the name of protecting intellectual property.

Already, Hong Kong’s criminal code allows authorities to charge people with the offense of “obtaining access to a computer with a dishonest intent.” The pending bill, some activists fear, would only strengthen the authorities’ hand.

In recent years, Hong Kong has sprouted an online parody subculture, as disaffected local netizens lampoon officials and criticize government policies by repurposing pop songs or doctoring screen grabs.

The new bill carries exemptions for caricature, parody, pastiche, satire, news reporting and commentary. It also requires those who repurpose others’ material to cite the source of the original work and obtain permission from copyright owners.

Opponents say the requirement puts too heavy a burden on authors of derivative works and would leave them vulnerable to civil liabilities and criminal charges. Opponents of the legislation are also pressuring lawmakers to amend the bill to exempt fair use, as is the case under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the U.S., or all user-generated content, a concept pioneered in Canada’s copyright law, saying these laws afford users the impunity to exercise their freedom of expression.

Government officials and industry groups who support the Hong Kong bill counter that those laws are too broad.

“For most Internet users, right now they think anything goes,” said Raymond Chan, a city legislator from the so-called pan-democratic camp, who opposes the bill. “But with this bill, it's as though the government had set aside some birdcages and said, ‘If you stay in there you'll be safe from civil suits and criminal prosecution.’ So you can imagine the outcry.”

Charles Mok, a Legislative Council member who represents the information technology sector, said that after spending the last few years working with the government in drafting the bill, he believes the legislation is better than the status quo. Mok said he will vote in favor of the bill if it is amended to include the exemptions his constituents desire.

“Here we have a government very untrusted by the people, especially the politically minded young people who are used to expressing themselves online,” Mok said. “That's the political reality.”

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