Hong Kong court to rule if Google, Meta must censor unofficial anthem
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Hong Kong court to rule if Google, Meta must censor unofficial anthem

HONG KONG — A Hong Kong judge will decide next week whether to force global tech giants like Apple, Google and Meta to block access to the unofficial anthem of the pro-democracy movement.

If the judge grants the Hong Kong government’s request, it will mean the companies will be operating in a legal environment that looks increasingly like China’s, rather than the comparatively freewheeling Hong Kong of decades past.

Free speech advocates are worried about the further erosion of freedoms in the territory, which was meant to have a degree of autonomy from Beijing.

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“The government wants to use the courts as a form of political oppression and to limit expressions of political opinion,” said Eric Yan-ho Lai, a nonresident fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.

In the High Court in Hong Kong on Friday, Judge Anthony Chan heard the government’s request for an injunction to block the distribution and performance of the popular song “Glory to Hong Kong,” which was sung during pro-democracy protests that rocked the city in 2019.

Chan said he would deliver his ruling in a week, on July 28.

Hong Kong’s city government last month asked the court to prohibit the broadcast or distribution of the song, contending it contains a slogan that constitutes a call for secession.

That is an offense under the sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, which significantly restricted free expression and criminalized activities seen as advocating for Hong Kong’s independence or subverting state power.

If the court rules in the government’s favor, that would mean people would be banned from singing the lyrics or humming the melody of “Glory to Hong Kong.” A man was arrested for sedition last year for playing the tune on a harmonica during Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.

The injunction also puts businesses in Hong Kong in a bind. Global tech companies operating there will be stuck between “defending free speech and free information on one hand while being forced to comply with the court order,” Lai said.

Hongkongers have also been subject to police scrutiny for their online activities, but the law did not explicitly direct global tech companies to carry out censorship on their platforms.

That would change if Chan upholds the government’s request. Such a ruling would require the world’s biggest tech companies to fall in line with China’s efforts to censor information that contradicts the official narrative.

The injunction would mean Google would be required to stop “Glory to Hong Kong” from appearing in search results, while Twitter and Meta’s Facebook would have to block the song from news feeds.

Platforms like YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music would also have to remove the song from their catalogues.

“This is like a new game now,” said George Chen, former head of public policy for greater China at Meta. “Clearly, the government now has a lower tolerance level than before when it comes to politically sensitive content.”

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Dozens of rights groups have written to the tech companies asking them to oppose the injunction.

Spokespeople for Google and Meta declined to comment on the case. Apple, Spotify and the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association did not reply to requests for comment.

None were represented in court Friday, although a lawyer appointed by the court to speak for the public interest said that banning the song would only draw attention to it.

Indeed, the day after the injunction was filed, nine of the top 10 songs in the Hong Kong Apple iTunes store were versions of the song.

Last year, after “Glory to Hong Kong” was repeatedly played in place of the official Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” at multiple international sporting events, authorities pressured Google to bury the song. But the company refused, saying search results are dictated by an internal algorithm.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said it has been assured that if the injunction is granted, it would include an exemption for journalistic references to the song. It is unclear how internet platforms would be expected to differentiate between content circulating for media-related versus other reasons.

“Glory to Hong Kong,” written by a local composer who goes by Thomas dgx yhl, has particularly drawn Beijing’s ire for lyrics containing a slogan that authorities have deemed to cross a red line: “Liberate our Hong Kong, in common breath; Revolution of our times!”

On Thursday, a Hong Kong court issued its first conviction under the National Anthem Ordinance, another law passed in 2020 that criminalizes disrespect to China’s national anthem.

Local photographer Cheng Wing-chun was sentenced to three months in prison for creating a video of an athlete receiving a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 to a rendition of “Glory to Hong Kong,” then uploading it to YouTube.

Experts said the government’s request for an injunction showed that the national security law was being applied — and this would have wide-reaching ramifications.

“It will fundamentally change Hong Kong’s digital environment and how global tech firms view it,” said Nigel Cory, associate director of trade policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

Since the national security law took effect, some global technology companies have changed their approach to Hong Kong, which was supposed to have a level of autonomy under Beijing’s “one country, two systems” framework.

Hong Kong demands Google bury protest song in online anthem search results

Apple, which complies with the Chinese government’s requirement to store user data locally, ditched Google’s safe browsing service on its Safari web browser in favor of one made by Chinese company Tencent. Users have reported it has blocked their access to Western sites like social media platform Mastodon and code repository GitLab.

The tech giants behind generative artificial intelligence chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard have notably not made them available to users in Hong Kong.

This allows the companies to avoid the challenge of confronting China’s biggest tech companies — how to let users freely create content with generative AI while under Beijing’s strict censorship environment.

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“The warning effect has obviously always been there since Day One,” said Chen, the former Meta executive now at a Washington-based consultancy, the Asia Group.

“Whether you plan to launch a new product, like ChatGPT for example, if you are a tech company executive in Hong Kong, you must first ask yourself — is this something that may violate the national security law?” he said.

Some tech companies might be willing to consider restricting certain content for access in Hong Kong, Chen said, but companies usually consider a global takedown order “off the table” unless it clearly violates their content policies.

Many global tech companies have, for years, separated their services provided to users in China from the rest of the world, in some cases building segmented infrastructure to comply with Beijing’s requirements.

“They have not done that when it comes Hong Kong,” Cory said. “This injunction will force them to do so.”

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