(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s intent to ban internet platforms from hosting a protest song is raising concern the move may prompt Western tech firms such as Google to reconsider their presence in the finance hub.
The High Court on Monday will examine an injunction submitted by the government last week that would make it illegal for anyone with criminal intent to perform or broadcast Glory to Hong Kong, including the lyrics and melody. Authorities also asked the court to ban 32 videos of the song on YouTube. National security judge Wilson Chan will preside over the hearing and could issue an injunction the same day.
The application is the latest twist in a long-running battle by the government to force Alphabet Inc.’s Google to stop displaying the song prominently on its search engine. Web searches for Hong Kong’s national anthem show videos of Glory to Hong Kong instead of the correct song, China’s anthem March of the Volunteers.
“Censorship regime is creeping in at an accelerated pace,” said Xiaomeng Lu, a director at Eurasia Group who specializes in geopolitics and technology. “Further pressure on big tech to comply with government demands could compel these companies to withdraw their services from the market, just like how Google pulled its search engine from mainland China in 2010.”
Google declined to comment for this story. The company has repeatedly rejected the government’s appeals, saying in December it doesn’t “manually manipulate” web listings to determine the ranking of a specific page, nor will it remove web results “except for specific reasons outlined in our global policy documentation.”
Glory to Hong Kong has been played by mistake at a number of global sporting events, causing embarrassment for the government. Organizers at an Asian rugby event in South Korea downloaded the wrong song after searching online for the city’s national anthem.
For Michael Davis, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong, the court bid signals the government’s intent to widen a crackdown on such issues to the internet and social media. Such a move may exacerbate worries among global firms about the city’s viability as an international finance center.
Hong Kong is guaranteed freedom of speech until at least 2047 under a “one country, two systems” framework. This contrasts with mainland China, where foreign social media and search engines are blocked, and news organizations and filmmakers face tight restrictions.
“To move more aggressively on both local and international internet providers does signal a more forceful move into the area of internet censorship,” Davis said. “Until now Hong Kong’s main remaining distinction from the mainland has been access to largely uncensored global internet and media providers.”
The court order is seen as an interim step until the government enacts its own local security law, known as Article 23, a controversial legislation designed to curb sedition.
The injunction, if granted, may still not compel companies such as Google to comply because of its framing. That’s because the government is seeking to ban performances or broadcasts of the song if there is intent to incite others to sedition, or if the song was likely to be mistaken for Hong Kong’s national anthem.
“It’s hard to see how tech companies hosting material that someone else uploaded would fall afoul of either of those,” said Stuart Hargreaves, assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s law school. “My suspicion is that the tech companies will probably refuse to do so until there is clear legislation on the matter.”
Eurasia’s Lu also predicts Google will reject the government’s bid.
“I would expect Google to turn down their requests and log such interactions in the company’s disclosure reports,” Lu said.
The government has increasingly taken a tough approach to anything related to national security. Events that could create discord, such as commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, are no longer permitted — even if officials have been coy about an outright ban.
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While the city has its own currency, legal system and flag, it has never had its own national anthem. Under colonial rule, Hong Kong used the British national anthem. Since the handover in 1997, it has adopted the March of the Volunteers, which was written during China’s war against Japan. Glory to Hong Kong was written in 2019.
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