A Hong Kong judge said Friday he would 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”, the anthem of the 2019 protests that ended with Beijing taking tighter control of Hong Kong. Authorities argue that the song is an insult to China’s national anthem and may lead people to believe that Hong Kong is an independent nation. The government has banned it in schools and it has been severely criticized when it is mistakenly played at sporting events.
On Friday, Judge Anthony Chan, after hearing three hours of legal arguments, said he would deliver his ruling on July 28. The government is seeking an injunction to stop the online publication or distribution of “Glory to Hong Kong”. Anyone violating the injunction could face jail for contempt of court.
Tech companies are closely watching the case, as it raises fears of greater government control over online speech in Hong Kong.
Thomas E. Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, said, “The business community should take note – as long as the Hong Kong government can claim that the interests of national security prevail, the courts will not be able to protect them.”
Google has resisted a public request from the government that “Glory to Hong Kong” not appear in search results or on its sister service, YouTube. But that could change if a court orders him to comply with the request. Like most tech companies, Google has Policy Of remove or restrict access Content that is considered illegal by a court of law in some countries or locations.
Google, which is owned by Alphabet, said it would not comment on the matter, as did Facebook’s parent company Meta. Google and Facebook set up offices in Hong Kong a decade ago, and today each has several hundred employees in the city. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
Authorities in Hong Kong have swiftly cracked down on dissent and issues considered a threat to national security, and have targeted individuals through arrests, bounties and prosecutions.
Also, the government is working to pass legislation early next year that would target subversive content and close “internet loopholes”, a move that could have more far-reaching consequences and could lead to the ban being codified into law.
Hong Kong has long attracted foreign businesses seeking access and proximity to China, away from censorship controls. It is the only Chinese region with uninterrupted access to services such as Google and Facebook, which were forced out of China years ago.
When Google rejected a request to remove the song in December, Hong Kong’s security chief called the company’s decision “unimaginable”.
In court on Friday, government lawyer Benjamin Yu argued why the song should be banned, saying it was used to “provoke emotion”. He pointed to the arrest of a harmonica player who played outside the British consulate last year to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Lawyer Abraham Chan, who acted as amicus curiae to present opposing arguments, said that banning the song on grounds of national security could impede the free flow of information.
“You can’t just say ‘don’t worry about the cooling effects,'” he said.
Hong Kong authorities have arrested more than 250 people under a sweeping national security law imposed on the city by Beijing in 2020, aimed at cracking down on opposition to the ruling Communist Party.
Compared to “slow-moving” criminal cases against individuals, an injunction could give the government a quicker way to restrict content on online platforms, said Kevin Yam, a Melbourne-based legal researcher and former Hong Kong lawyer.
No companies or individuals were named as direct defendants in the government’s injunction application, which included 32 links to “Glory to Hong Kong” on YouTube.
But many fear the court injunction against “Glory to Hong Kong” could be a step towards more official control of the internet in Hong Kong, where the internet remains mostly free of censorship despite Beijing’s heavy hand in governing the territory.
US tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter were blocked from mainland China in 2009. A year later, Google shut down its China services and sent users to its search engine in Hong Kong, which at the time was a bastion of political freedom on Chinese soil.
Since the imposition of the national security law, there has been an increase in requests by Hong Kong authorities to tech companies to remove content on the Internet.
chang che Contributed reporting from Seoul.