Google will be allowed to turn on a high-speed internet link to Taiwan but not a branch connecting with Hong Kong, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Department of Justice cited national security concerns as China increasingly exercises influence in the semiautonomous region.
Google and Facebook together built the multimillion-dollar underwater cable, called Pacific Light, which extends 8,000 miles across the Pacific with separate branches to Taiwan and Hong Kong. The two companies want more control over the network pipes that connect their data centers so they can ensure less congestion and improved reliability. Increased traffic from people staying at home due to COVID-19 is of particular concern right now.
The U.S. fears that data on Facebook and Google users passing through Hong Kong would be at risk of being intercepted by the Chinese Communist Party. China does not allow either company to operate on the mainland because it demands a level of control that the two companies have been unwilling to cede (or at least unwilling because of employee protests).
Chinese influence will ruin a good thing — Hong Kong has long served as a financial hub connecting Asia with the rest of the world thanks to its (relatively) fair legal system, unfiltered access to the web, and capitalist economy that's independent from the rest of China. The relative safety of Hong Kong is also why the city is a common meeting point for internet cables from different parts of the world.
Hong Kong fell into a recession in 2019, however, as residents protested China's interest in allowing criminal extraditions to the mainland, which many believe could spell the end of Hong Kong's independent judicial system. If China can prosecute and extradite anyone in Hong Kong who goes against the ruling party, the thinking goes, is Hong Kong really independent at all?
The move on the part of the DOJ is an escalation of tension between the U.S. and Beijing, and a bad sign for Hong Kong's future as a global economic hub. It shows what might happen if China tries to take further control of the city. Financial companies and ex-pats will decamp to safer ground, which is bad for China because many mainland businesses choose to raise money in Hong Kong.
Google said it plans to move forward with lighting up the portion of its cable connecting California with Taiwan.