In comparison, Hong Kong has since the mid-1980s adopted a far more complicated scheme regarding the regulation of pornography. The Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance (COIAO), enacted in 1987, regulates indecent and obscene articles. The mere possession of obscene or indecent publications is not a crime in Hong Kong. The COIAO only bans acts that lead to the dissemination of obscene articles amongst the public or that make indecent articles available to minors. Any person who publishes, possesses or imports for the purpose of publication any obscene article is subject to a maximum fine ofHK$ 1 million (as of mid-2013, one US dollar equals 7.75 Hong Kong dollars) and imprisonment for three years (COIAO, section 21). A person who shows an indecent article to a juvenile (COIAO, section 22) or who publishes an indecent article in violation of the statutory requirements faces a maximum fine of HK$400,000 and imprisonment for 12 months on first conviction, and a fine of HK$800,000 and imprisonment for 12 months on a subsequent conviction (COIAO, section 24). The statutory requirements include the sealing of indecent articles in wrappers and the display of a warning notice stating that these articles must not be published or sold to persons under the age of 18.

Despite the strict control of obscene materials in the offline environment, Hong Kong has adopted a relatively light-handed regulatory approach in respect to websites and online content so as to encourage innovation and promote freedom of expression. Online content is subject only to general media laws such as defamation and contempt, and in particular has to abide by the COIAO. In addition, ISPs voluntarily follow a self-regulatory code of practice devised in 1997. The Hong Kong government proposed in several COIAO reviews since 2000 to tighten the control of online content and to step up the responsibilities of ISPs (HKSAR 2000, 2008, 2012). Most of the proposals were stalled, however, because of strong opposition from ISPs.

As such, Hong Kong has until now devised very few legislative provisions specifically targeting the online environment. Moreover, unlike mainland China, Hong Kong belongs to the common law legal system under which judges can make new laws when delivering their court judgments. It is therefore mainly for the courts in Hong Kong to adapt and apply the existing pre-Internet legislation to the digital environment. Indeed, Hong Kong courts have since 1996 readily applied the COIAO, which contains no reference to the law’s applicability to the Web, to convict people involved in publishing obscene articles online. When challenged by an accused in 1998, the court held that the definition of ‘article’ in the COIAO is very wide and can cover graphic computer files (HKSAR v Cheung Kam Keung, 1998).