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Israeli hosting firm Wix removes Hong Kong democracy website after police order

Tel Aviv-based company says decision to remove site was ‘mistake,’ reinstates it when 1st known case of police using new law to demand overseas firms censor content becomes public

People hold up their phones with the light on in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 4, 2021, after police closed the venue where Hong Kong people traditionally gather annually to mourn the victims of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 which the authorities have banned citing the coronavirus pandemic and vowed to stamp out any protests on the anniversary. (ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP)
People hold up their phones with the light on in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 4, 2021, after police closed the venue where Hong Kong people traditionally gather annually to mourn the victims of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 which the authorities have banned citing the coronavirus pandemic and vowed to stamp out any protests on the anniversary. (ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP)

HONG KONG — Israel-based web host Wix pulled a Hong Kong democracy website from its servers following a takedown request by the Chinese financial hub’s police, a decision the company said Friday was “a mistake.”

The firm later reversed the decision and reinstated the site. However, the removal is the first known case of Hong Kong police using a sweeping new national security law to demand overseas websites censor content.

Nathan Law, a former student leader and Hong Kong legislator who fled to Britain last year, tweeted on Thursday that Wix had removed www.2021HKCharter.com, a website set up by overseas activists calling for democracy in the city.

He shared a letter Hong Kong police wrote to Wix demanding the website be pulled because it contained messages “likely to constitute offences endangering national security.”

In this Aug. 25, 2020 file photo, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law takes part in a protest during a meeting of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, in Rome (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

Employees of Wix, the letter warned, could face a fine and six months in prison if they refused.

Law said the website was taken down on Monday and he tried to persuade Wix to reinstate it in private correspondence.

The website only reappeared after Law went public.

“The website was removed by mistake,” a Wix spokesperson told AFP by email on Friday. “We have reviewed our initial screening and have realized that the website never should have been removed and we would like to apologize.”

“We are also reviewing our screening process in order to improve and make sure that mistakes such as this do not repeat in the future,” the statement added.

An illustration of the Wix.com ecommerce platform in action (Courtesy)

The takedown order comes as China’s campaign to silence dissent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong rattles tech brands.

Beijing imposed a sweeping security law on the city after huge and often violent democracy protests in 2019.

The law outlawed many forms of dissent and gave police broad internet takedown powers.

China has also awarded itself “universal jurisdiction” to pursue any perceived national security crime committed by anyone overseas.

People hold candles walk past police officers near Hong Kong Victoria Park, a place in the past years for people to gather during a candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of the military crackdown on a pro-democracy student movement in Beijing, in Hong Kong, June 4, 2021 (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

That leaves tech companies in a potentially precarious position, especially those that have offices or servers in Hong Kong or a presence in the mainland Chinese market.

Authoritarian China keeps the internet ring-fenced by a “Great Firewall.”

Hong Kong still maintains open online access, but authorities have started to step up online controls.

Earlier this week, new legislation was passed making it compulsory to present identification when buying pre-pay sim cards.

Last year Google, Facebook and Twitter said they would stop responding to takedown requests from Hong Kong authorities following the imposition of the security law.

Like its rival SquareSpace, Wix has become a popular website builder, allowing simple drag-and-drop tools as well as templates for people to quickly set up their own online pages.

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