Hong Kong braces for a court ruling that could spell the beginning of the end of its open internet

A woman looks at a mobile phone after the skyline buildings lights were switched off for the Earth Hour environmental campaign in Hong Kong on March 24, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Philip FONG (Photo credit should read PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)
Hong Kong's free and open internet has long distinguished the city from those in mainland China.
Philip Fong—AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong is bracing for what could be the beginning of the end of its open internet, as the city government seeks to ban the online dissemination of a protest song. If a court agrees with the government, experts warn it could set a dangerous precedent for some U.S. tech giants.

The city government applied in June for a court order to prohibit people from broadcasting or distributing Glory to Hong Kong, arguing that the song contains a slogan that amounts to a call for secession—one of four offenses outlawed under the sweeping National Security Law imposed by Beijing in 2020.

The unofficial anthem of the pro-democracy protests in 2019, Glory to Hong Kong became so popular that international sports events have mistakenly played it as the city’s official anthem. In February, the International Ice Hockey Federation played the protest song instead of the Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers, after the Hong Kong team beat Iran. 

Blaming Google for anthem errors

Many observers are watching to see how global internet platforms hosting the song, such as Google’s YouTube, Meta, and Spotify, will react to an injunction. The government has blamed previous anthem blunders on Google’s algorithm; the protest song’s Wikipedia page is the top result in a search for Hong Kong’s national anthem. 

In December, Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang said the government requested that Google tweak its search results to display the correct national anthem, but the tech giant refused. The city did not name Google as a defendant in the case, but its writ included links to 32 YouTube videos. 

“The Hong Kong government is attempting to use the courts to press major global internet platforms to take part in its censorship regime,” says Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law in Georgetown University. He notes that the government has already used the all-too-clear threat of criminal prosecution to deter residents from publicly playing or performing the song. In September, Hong Kong police arrested a harmonica player for alleged sedition after he played the song at a vigil for Queen Elizabeth. 

“The injunction seeks to take the ban one step further and to try to block even private access to the song on major internet platforms,” Kellogg says. 

Google has stood firm so far, but the ruling—due to be issued at a hearing on Friday—may test foreign social media platforms’ commitment to free expression and cast a question mark over their future in Hong Kong. 

How tech companies will comply

Most platforms will likely partially comply with an injunction by restricting access to the content locally, says George Chen, a managing director at The Asia Group, a consulting firm, and former head of public policy for Greater China at Meta. “If you choose to ignore the court order, there will be legal consequences,” Chen says, ”hence this is not a high chance event unless the platform already decides to leave the market.” 

Users in Hong Kong likely will be able to bypass any geoblock by changing their location in settings or using a VPN. Still, tech firms abiding by an injunction will deliver a new blow to free expression in Hong Kong, where unlike in mainland China, residents have enjoyed unfettered access to the web and foreign tech firms such as Google and Meta can operate freely. The free and open internet is among the features that set the city apart from the rest of China and has made it a hub for international corporations. 

The band Phoenix plays at Hong Kong’s 2023 Clockenflap Festival. Friday’s court ruling could deal a fresh blow to free expression in the city.
Ben Marans—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

“If they comply with it, then it sends a strong signal that that businesses are sort of at the whim of the government, that even a company like Google is not safe in Hong Kong,” says Lokman Tsui, a research fellow at University of Toronto’s The Citizen Lab and former head of free expression for Asia and the Pacific at Google. The tech giant may also face a strong blowback from the U.S. government for being complicit in Chinese political censorship, Tsui adds. 

Meta declined to comment on the matter. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Stepping up internet controls

For Hong Kong residents, a larger concern is that the city’s censorship efforts will not end with the song. “It is not the first time and it won’t be the last,” says Kwong Chung Ching, a digital rights activist and Hong Kong campaigns coordinator at the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international legislative coalition aimed at countering China’s influence. 

According to Google’s latest transparency report, it received requests from the Hong Kong government to remove 183 items—mostly from YouTube—in the second half of 2022, including 55 related to national security. It did not take action on nearly half of the takedown requests, including links to children’s books that a court has deemed seditious. A court-ordered injunction could embolden the government to expand its effort to censor comments and speech deemed a threat to national security. “This is ringing an alarm bell for a lot of the online service providers in Hong Kong. They might be subjected to content moderation coming directly from the government,” Kwong says. 

There are already signs that Hong Kong authorities are stepping up their control over information flow both online and offline. A small but growing list of websites, including an online museum commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown, has been blocked by local telecom networks in recent years. Authorities have charged ordinary social media users—from a 23-year-old student studying in Japan to a 48-year-old housewife—with sedition over their online comments. Books by prominent democracy advocates disappeared from public libraries and a new channel was recently established for residents to report titles that could endanger national security. 

A new threat to Hong Kong’s internet freedom looms on the horizon: the upcoming enactment of Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s own security law. The city’s security chief pledged to “plug loopholes” in the internet and establish online patrols to identify messages and acts of “soft resistance” under the new legislation. 

And these measures will not just affect individual users. “It’ll push businesses into a more difficult situation in gauging what’s accepted and what’s not and where we can draw the line,” Kwong says. “They might already be having this kind of conversation, especially when it comes to national security. This legislation will only intensify this concern.”

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