Missing Link: Hong Kong – The Birth and Death of the Free Internet

Charles Mok never tires of emphasizing that governments are taking back control of the Internet as a global phenomenon. In Hong Kong, however, he experienced the trend first-hand as an ISP from the very beginning. After founding the company and selling it for the first time, the Hong Kong native tried to politically save the free internet – and free Hong Kong – and very consciously sided with civil society.

In 2020 came the big bang and the resignation from the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo), of which he had been a member for eight years. He needed a “freer environment” for his new job, he says in an interview with heise online. Today he conducts research at Stanford and is a board member of the international Internet Society.

Our series of German internet pioneers:

heise online: A preliminary query, you were born in Hong Kong and went to school. Today you live in California. When did you leave Hong Kong?

Charles Mok: I’ve been working at Stanford Law School’s Cyber ​​Policy Center since May 2021. I do research there on the Internet, politics and developments in cyberspace in Asia. I’m not limiting myself to Hong Kong and China.

Was her exit from Hong Kong’s parliament, the LegCo, a reason for her departure?

Charles Mok

I resigned from LegCo in December 2020. In fact, I was already on the verge of leaving politics at the time. Before becoming an MP, I worked in the IT industry and then I got involved in civil society. I was determined to do something completely different again. Of course, what I’m doing now wouldn’t be possible in the form in Hong Kong’s current climate. So I was probably already looking for a more open environment. However, for me, the jump from Hong Kong to the US is almost like coming home. Because originally I returned to Hong Kong from the USA in 1994. So the position at Stanford that was offered to me was just the right thing for me to do the planned work.

What is your long-term plan? Is a return to Hong Kong still an option?

I will stay here for a few years. But I travel a lot. I just looked at the exciting developments in the digital ecosystems in Japan and Taiwan and the transformation processes there. I am primarily interested in the political and regulatory steps, but the transformation processes within government and business are linked to them. I was hardly able to travel when I was a Member of Parliament. The schedule for this is just too tight, it’s a bit like school. So now I’m enjoying the opportunities that my new job brings.

Can you also travel to Hong Kong?

That should be easy. But let’s say it’s also a decision whether you want to go there right now or not.

How long have you been using the internet?

I grew up and went to school in Hong Kong. In the late 1970s there were no computers in the schools. When I was in high school, there were two classmates whose families could afford a Commodore or an Atari. I remember we checked them out when we visited. Although the classmates in question didn’t just play it, we still found it somehow unimpressive. My first encounter with the internet was when I started studying electrical engineering at Purdue University in the USA. I took a programming course in my first year and really didn’t have a clue at first. Because I had never worked with a keyboard before, apart from a classic typewriter. We worked on virtual terminals connected to a host. We were already using UNIX and the host was connected to the internet, unlike the Atari at my Hong Kong friends. That was in 1983, 40 years ago.

How did you start using the internet?

I tried emailing my friends who had enrolled at other US colleges. Later also friends in Hong Kong. But my first emails went to New York or New Jersey (laughs). It’s pretty funny that we first gave each other our e-mail addresses in a letter. Back then it wasn’t that easy with e-mail addresses. The simple e-mail addresses ([email protected]) ​​came later. We had to enter the hosts one after the other on the way between the sender and receiver. You basically figured out the route for the email through trial and error. We use UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy Protocol). We’ve called each other to figure out how to send emails to each other.

Did you then choose IT as a specialization within electrical engineering?

I studied computers and electrical engineering, that’s what it was called back then. I put my focus more on the software and not the hardware.

What is missing: In the fast-paced world of technology, there is often the time to re-sort all the news and background information. At the weekend we want to take it, follow the side paths away from the current, try different perspectives and make nuances audible.

Why did you choose this major?

Good question. It wasn’t a very reflective decision. If I compare myself to the students of today, then they are much better prepared. We didn’t have much idea what to expect. Today, students plan right from the start which master they want to do and which university is best for it. They think about what career opportunities they have with it. I didn’t know what would become of me when I was done. And of course there were hardly any role models for us and we didn’t have the wealth of information that students draw from today when they decide to study. It was a simpler time. Sometimes I want to tell students to just get started and not try to plan everything in advance. What we definitely didn’t realize in the 80’s was how important computers and information technology would become in people’s lives later on. There really were very few who even attempted to make predictions about the meaning of the toys we were tinkering with.

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