Hong Kong does not conduct the type of law enforcement campaigns common in mainland China. Furthermore, only upon public complaints will any COIAO breaches be investigated. The COIAO is enforced by several government departments, namely, the Office of Film, Newspaper and Article Administration, Customs and Excise Department, and the police. As mentioned, ISPs in Hong Kong abide by a self-regulatory code of practice. In sum, a complaint – driven and co-regulatory approach has been adopted in Hong Kong to deal with obscene or indecent online content (HKSAR 2012: 41).
Over the years, there have been only isolated prosecutions and convictions of individuals in Hong Kong for disseminating obscene photographs online. The biggest controversy concerning the regulation of online pornography occurred in early 2008, when hundreds of sex photographs were leaked onto the Web over a period of two weeks. They had been stolen from the laptop computer of Hong Kong pop idol Edison Chen, and showed him having sex on various occasions with a number of actresses and celebrities. The sex photos attracted immense attention in Greater China, and millions of Chinese Internet users excitedly circulated the photos (Chung, Guo and Crawford 2008).
The Hong Kong police acted quickly and arrested a man for disseminating an obscene article online. The then Police Commissioner even warned the public that mere possession of the sex photographs might attract criminal liability (The Straits Times 2008). This was certainly a misinterpretation of the COIAO provisions, and soon turned into a fight for online freedom of expression. Some Internet users quickly organised themselves and staged protests outside the police headquarters to support the arrested man (Chiang and Ng 2008).
A daily newspaper submitted several of Chen’s sex photographs to the OAT for classification. The photograph relied on by the police to make the arrest was classified as indecent and not obscene. Embarrassed by the OAT classification, the police dropped the charge against the man and released him, by which time he had already been in custody for about two weeks (Wong 2008). The police therefore came under severe criticism for their COIAO enforcement. Meanwhile, another man was later successfully prosecuted and convicted of disseminating obscene articles. What he did was to direct Hong Kong Internet users to overseas online storage of Edison Chen’s sex photos by setting up hyperlinks (Lai 2008).
The swift operations by the Hong Kong police discouraged the city’s Internet users from further uploading of Chen’s sex photos. As a result, websites in Hong Kong were soon clear of these photos. Police in mainland China reportedly also took action against several Internet users there for disseminating the photos, relying on relevant LAPPOS provisions (Xinhua 2008). Meanwhile, in other incidents unrelated to Edison Chen’s saga, police in mainland China cited LAPPOS in searching the mobile phones of train passengers for obscene photos. This caused a public outcry, with Chinese Internet users in numerous online postings complaining that such searches constituted an invasion of privacy (Southern Metropolis Daily 2010). As mentioned above, neither the LAPPOS nor the CL bans the possession of obscene articles. On the other hand, however, it appears that mainland police have made only a half-hearted effort to clear Edison Chen sex photos, some of which can still be found online. A search via Baidu, mainland China’s largest home-grown search engine, readily produces sex photos of Edison Chen and his partners. This shows that law enforcement in Hong Kong can be more effective than that of mainland China regarding the ban on obscene online content.
Pornography regulation is not without controversy in Hong Kong. As noted, the police and the OAT differed in their evaluation of whether a sex photo of Edison Chen was obscene. The workings of the COIAO and the OAT also drew much criticism. The Hong Kong government conducted reviews on the COIAO in 2000, 2008, and 2012. The 2000 review did not bring about any changes due to opposition from the print media and ISPs. The results of the recent two rounds of review conducted in 2008 and 2012 are still pending. Several factors have contributed to the unsatisfactory status of pornography regulation in Hong Kong and its prolonged reviews: vague definitions of obscenity and indecency, the confusing dual role of the OAT as a judicial and administrative body, pressure from the print media and some other sectors to loosen regulation, and demands from worried parents and conservative groups to step up regulation.