Hyperlinking in Hong Kong

By now, all Hong Kong netizens are no doubt aware of this story:

(South China Morning Post)  HK$5,000 fine for Net porn link.  By Chandra Wong and Yvonne Tsui.  May 11, 2007.

A Hong Kong man who posted a message with an internet link to an overseas pornographic website was fined yesterday for publishing an obscene article via the internet.

The prosecution and conviction, the city's first under the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance, involved the use of a common computing technique, the police's commercial crime bureau said.  The judgment has worried the local internet community, particularly with regard to possible constraints on the free flow of information.  Questions were also raised on whether guidelines are sufficient to halt online distribution of obscene material.

Woo Tai-wai, 48, pleaded guilty in Kwun Tong Court to publishing eight obscene photos via a local internet forum.  He provided a linked message which, when clicked, would enable other forum users to access an overseas pornographic website showing the photos.  A hyperlink is a graphic or text string which, when clicked, opens a new web page or jumps to a new location in the current page.

Deputy Magistrate Jason Wan Siu-ming fined Woo HK$5,000 in light of his guilty plea and clean record.  He also said that while the articles at issue were obscene, they were not extreme or of deviant taste.

The photos were classified as Class III obscene articles by the Obscene Articles Tribunal.  Internet Society chairman Charles Mok Nai-kwong said the court case, the first prosecution of its kind in the city, raised more questions than answers.  "It worries us as in this case the court has given a new direction to the public concerning the responsibility of internet users," he said, as well as affecting the notion of freedom regarding the distribution of information on the internet.  It may cause damage to the freedom of information on the internet. This man posted a link on the internet, which now becomes an act that constitutes the breaking of law, and my question is whether a link is being regarded as the `obscene article'."

Mr Mok said he was also concerned that materials connected to links are changeable.  "Materials behind a link are always changeable. It could be pornographic material behind the link on the day of his arrest, but it could be something else on the day he posted the link," he said. "Where should the authority draw the line?"

He said popular search engines such as Yahoo and Google carried links to porn sites. "In cases where search engines list out all the links to pornographic websites, is it justifiable to ask whether these would have to undergo censorship as they also provide these hyperlinks to obscene articles?  We are not encouraging the distribution of this kind of material, but I suggest more guidelines from the government for internet users," Mr Mok said.

The court heard in mitigation that Woo saw similar messages being posted at the forum and therefore did not know it was an offence.  Woo was remorseful, and he had just wanted to share the photoes "with other netizens", the court was told.

The case came to light when the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority received a public complaint last November about obscene articles on the popular internet forum uwants.com.  The forum's webmaster checked records and found the message was posted by "fireman 1324" at the chat room "Adult Images Posting Area".  The IP address belonged to the defendant.

Police raided a Sham Shui Po flat and arrested Woo, who confessed and said the message was posted via his home computer.  "I uploaded the pornographic [link] to uwants.com but I didn't know it constituted an offence," Woo told police on his arrest.  The court heard that Woo had made no financial gain from the publication of the link.

(InMediaHK)  By Oiwan Lam.  May 11, 2007.

[in translation]

The recent storm aroused by the Chinese University of Hong Kong student newspaper's erotic section is just the tip of the iceberg.  Political censorsihp has been manipulating public opinion in seemingly apolitical sectors.  Previously, we saw during the consultation over digital media copyrights how the state machinery used "protection of copyrights" to attempt to introduce a system to filter and delete contents, or else intimidate personal or small websites through fines.

Another gap through which political censorship can be introduced is pornography. This gap gathers the power of the state as well as the forces of religious people and fake moral politicians.  So far, they have focused on gender and gay rights groups, but we must extend our battlelines in light of the court decision two days ago: the police filed charges against a netizen for posting hyperlinks to pornographic websites at a certain forum and the court arrived at a guilty verdict with a fine of HK$5,000.  This is a very significant precedent for censorship.

It should be pointed out that the mainstream media is playing the moral market that is ultimate digging its own grave, because the theoretical argument will ultimately eliminate their own space for speech.

To express my protest, I will place a hyperlink to an overseas pornographic hyperlink.

There are no pop-up warnings here.  You can sue me personally.  I ask all netizens and bloggers to have similar hyperlinks.  When the time comes, we will get together to hire the lawyers.

With due respect, I want to go beyond the hyperlinking game.

The case about hyperlinking to pornographic sites may or may not be legally valid in Hong Kong. 

If you asssert that there is no such law (or if such a law is improper), you should hyperlink to pornographic by all means and dare prosecution.  You should probably do it in massive numbers. 

If you assert that such a law exists, then there are many instances that should be prosecuted.  So why are they not being prosecuted?  Why is one 48-year-old man being singled out to be selectively prosecuted?  Do you know?

I am going pursue the second path and make a public denunciation.  This follows the point made by Charles Mok.  I have just made a search of the keyword "bestiality" on Google.com.hk and I found 29,400 results (see link).  In case corrective action is taken to remove the evidence later on, I have saved a screen capture here.

I point out the relevant issues:

Why has Google.com.hk not been hauled to court by the Hong Kong Police yet?  If they don't know about it (and how is that possible???), then it should be clear with this public denunciation here.  (Or do I have to personally call them to tell them the obvious when they took on the Woo case???)

To make it clear, I am not going after Google.com.hk.  I could have used Yahoo.com.hk or any number of other examples.  Google.com.hk is being named here because it is the top-of-mind brand (and so this is a compliment).  Furthermore, even if Google.com.hk were to censor the keyword 'bestiality', I could have gotten Cateogry III obscene materials through any number of other keywords (and you have to trust me that I can always do that).  Nothing is 'safe.'  This whole exercise is absurd because it is impossible to be completely 'free' of offensive material' unless all search engines are banned.

Hong Kong: Guilty for Hyperlink and for Sex Talk  Oiwan Lam, Global Voices Online
Emotional footnote to porn hyperlink and student press scandal stories
  Oiwan Lam, Interlocals.net