A Hong Kong judge said on Friday he will rule next week on a government request to ban a popular pro-democracy song from the internet, in a case that could force Google and other companies to restrict access to the song.
At issue is “Glory to Hong Kong,” which was the anthem of the 2019 protests that ended with Beijing imposing tighter control over Hong Kong. Authorities say the song is an insult to China’s national anthem and could make people think Hong Kong is an independent country. It was banned from schools by the government and attacked when it was played, apparently by mistake, in sporting competitions.
On Friday, after hearing three hours of legal arguments, Judge Anthony Chan said he would issue his decision on July 28. The government is seeking a court order to ban “Glory to Hong Kong” from being published or distributed online. Anyone who contravenes this order could face imprisonment for contempt of court.
Tech companies are watching the case closely, as it has raised the specter of more government control over online speech in Hong Kong.
Said Thomas E. Kellogg, executive director of the Asian Law Center at Georgetown University: “The business community should pay attention — the courts will not be able to protect them as long as the Hong Kong government can reasonably claim that national security interests are at play.”
Google has resisted general government requests that the phrase “Glory be to Hong Kong” not appear in search results or on its sister service, YouTube. But that may change if the court orders her to comply with the request. Like most tech companies, Google has an extension Policy to remove or restrict access For material deemed illegal by a court in certain countries or locations.
Alphabet-owned Google said it would not comment on the case, as did Meta, Facebook’s parent company. Google and Facebook set up offices in Hong Kong more than a decade ago, and today they each have up to several hundred employees in the city. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
Authorities in Hong Kong have increasingly cracked down on what they perceive to be dissent and threats to national security, targeting individuals with arrests, rewards and trials.
At the same time, the government is working to pass legislation by early next year that would target what it deems to be disruptive content and close “internet loopholes,” a move that could have far-reaching consequences and codify the ban into law.
Hong Kong has long attracted foreign companies seeking access to and proximity to China, away from censorship. It was the only Chinese territory with unfettered access to services like Google and Facebook, which it pulled out of China years ago.
When Google denied a request to remove the song in December, Hong Kong’s chief of security called the company’s decision “unimaginable.”
In court on Friday, Benjamin Yu, the government’s attorney, arguing why the song should be banned, said the song was used to “stir up passions.” He cited the arrest of a harmonica player who had played the song outside the British Consulate while mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II last year.
Banning the song on national security grounds could disrupt the free flow of information, said Abraham Chan, a lawyer who acted as an amicus curiae to present the opposing arguments.
“You can’t simply say ‘Don’t worry about the scary effects,'” he said.
Hong Kong authorities have detained more than 250 people under an expansionary national security law that Beijing imposed on the city in 2020, aimed at stamping out opposition to the ruling Communist Party.
Compared to “slow-grinding” criminal cases against individuals, an injunction could give the government a fast track to restrict content on online platforms, said Kevin Yam, a legal scholar and former Hong Kong lawyer in Melbourne.
No company or individual was directly named as a defendant in the government’s injunction application, which included 32 links to “Glory to Hong Kong” on YouTube.
But many fear an injunction against “Glory to Hong Kong” is a step toward more official control of the internet in Hong Kong, where the internet remains mostly free of censorship despite Beijing’s heavier hand in governing the territory.
American tech companies like Facebook and Twitter were banned from mainland China in 2009. A year later, Google shut down its services in China and redirected users to its search engine in Hong Kong, then a bastion of political freedom on Chinese soil.
Since the introduction of the National Security Law, requests from Hong Kong authorities to technology companies to remove content online have skyrocketed.
Zhang Chi Contributed reporting from Seoul.