Hong Kong saw a spike in downloading software designed to cover Internet use Thursday after Beijing signaled plans to enact a new national security law that could strengthen its hold on the region.
Virtual Private Networks, platforms that help people circumvent web restrictions and hide their digital footprint, reflected seven of the ten most downloaded apps in the Hong Kong Apple Inc. app store, except games, on Thursday, according to data provider Sensor Tower. In the intervening days, none of them were on the chart.
One famous provider, NordVPN, said it received 120 times more downloads on Thursday than on the previous day. Competitor Surfshark VPN recorded a 700 percent rise in Hong Kong sales, registering as many in one morning as during the last week. Its Friday sales are keeping pace and could be even higher, the company said.
In comparison to mainland China, Hong Kong retains an open internet and relatively loose restrictions on online expression due to the region's semi-autonomous status. VPNs and U.S.-based messaging apps such as Twitter and WhatsApp, which are banned on the mainland, are legal in Hong Kong.
National security legislation is scheduled to be adopted by the Chinese Parliament before the end of its annual session next Thursday. However, a number of formal steps will still be taken before it is enforced. The law could lead to more surveillance and censorship in Hong Kong, privacy advocates said.
"The Chinese government is taking advantage of the pandemic and is stepping up its efforts to enforce control over the region," said Ray Walsh, a digital privacy advocate at Proprivacy.com. "For Hong Kong citizens who fear how this might affect their ability to work and communicate online with the outside world, this has led to an almost instant spike in the search for VPNs."
NordVPN's downloads started to increase around 6 p.m. Laura Tyrell, the company's spokesperson for the company, said in Hong Kong, urging the company to install new servers there and in Taiwan. The impact reflects similar reactions in other countries after governments have taken steps to limit online expression, such as when the U.K. Extended cyber-surveillance in 2016 or the U.S. revoked the net neutrality rules in 2018. The last time NordVPN saw a spike in Hong Kong was in October when anti-government demonstrations broke out across the city over a now-frozen extradition bill. The protests in Hong Kong led to violent riots and brought the local economy into recession. It also encouraged Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to invoke a colonial emergency law that granted official control and suppression of all communication forms, including the Internet.