Google, YouTube Facilitate Hong Kong Government Censorship of Protest Anthem

“Glory to Hong Kong,” a popular protest anthem of the city’s 2019 pro-democracy movement, has become a persistent target of the government’s national-security crackdown. The song contains the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” which judges in Hong Kong have ruled is capable of inciting others to secession, and numerous protesters have been arrested under various laws for publicly displaying the slogan. In July 2020, the song was banned from Hong Kong schools. In September 2022, a man was arrested for sedition for playing the song on a harmonica. Later that year, the Hong Kong government launched criminal investigations after the song was mistakenly played at sporting events in place of the Chinese national anthem. After the government sought a court injunction against the song last June, the song was briefly taken down from streaming websites, although the high court later denied the injunction request. However, as Tom Grundy reported for the Hong Kong Free Press on Wednesday, the city’s appeals court sided with the government last week to reimpose an injunction against the song, and Google has already begun search-censoring links to the song for users in Hong Kong:

Last Wednesday, a court banned people from “broadcasting, performing, printing, publishing, selling, offering for sale, distributing, disseminating, displaying or reproducing” the song with seditious intent. The Court of Appeal sided with the government, overturning last year’s decision by a lower court rejecting the injunction that cited free speech concerns.

The 32 videos listed in the court order have all been replaced with a message on YouTube stating: “This content is not available on this country domain due to a court order.” However, some versions remain accessible, as do versions on other platforms such as Spotify.

[…] YouTube said it had clear policies for removal requests from governments around the world, restricting content as a response to legal processes. In addition to the 32 takedowns, links to the videos on Google Search will no longer [be] visible to users in Hong Kong, it added. [Source]

Some of the videos taken down after the court order include instrumental and sign-language versions of the song, according to CNN. However, the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday that despite these take-downs, at least 20 new clips of the song had been newly uploaded to YouTube, with some labeled as “backup” or “re-uploaded,” and that the song was still available on Apple Music, Spotify, and Kkbox.

Jeffrey Dastin and James Pomfret from Reuters shared how the government’s censorship risks alienating tech companies and foreign investors:

“It is not a desirable situation from the perspective of free internet and free speech,” said George Chen, co-chair of digital practice at the Asia Group, a Washington DC-based business policy consultancy. He is also former head of public policy for Greater China at Meta.

“Now the question is how far and how aggressive the government wants to go,” Chen added. “If you start to send platforms 100 or 1,000 links for takedown every day, this will drive platforms crazy and also make global investors more worried about Hong Kong’s free market environment. How predictable and how stable the policy environment is matters a lot to foreign investors, and Hong Kong is now at a crossroads to defend its reputation.”

Industry groups, including the Asia Internet Coalition, which represents big tech firms like Meta, Apple and Google, have said keeping a free and open internet in Hong Kong is “fundamental” to maintaining the city’s edge. [Source]

Zeyi Yang at MIT Technology Review described how the government’s newly successful bid for an injunction against the song illustrated its attempt to pursue the dual goals of efficiently enforcing national security laws without tanking its global reputation, and enticing tech companies to comply with its legal requests:

Both sides are in tight spots. Tech companies don’t want to lose the Hong Kong market or endanger their local staff, but they are also worried about being seen as complying with authoritarian government actions. And the Hong Kong government doesn’t want to be seen as openly fighting Western platforms while trust in the region’s financial markets is already in decline. In particular, officials fear international headlines if the government invokes criminal law to force tech companies to remove certain content. 

[…] The key difference between this action and previous attempts to remove content is that this is a civil injunction, not a criminal prosecution—meaning it is, at least legally speaking, closer to a copyright takedown request. A platform could arguably be less likely to take a reputational hit if it removes the content upon request. 

[…] “The actual targets in this case, mainly the tech giants, may have less hesitation to comply with a civil court order than a national security order because if it’s the latter, they may also face backfire from the US,” says Eric Yan-Ho Lai, a research fellow at Georgetown Center for Asian Law. 

Lai also says now that the injunction is granted, it will be easier to prosecute an individual based on violation of a civil injunction rather than prosecuting someone for criminal offenses, since the government won’t need to prove criminal intent. [Source]

Many researchers and human rights activists voiced critical reactions. Lokman Tsui, a research fellow with the cybersecurity watchdog group Citizen Lab, said, “This injunction shows that Hong Kong is open for business but only if you are willing to comply with their requests for blatant political censorship.” Freedom House’s China Director Yaqiu Wang tweeted: “Very disappointed but not surprised. Between bottomline and values, international tech companies have consistently chosen bottomline. The [Hong Kong] govt can ban people from singing and listening to the song but it won’t be able to ban it from people’s heart[s].” Amnesty International’s China Director Sarah Brooks wrote: “The Hong Kong government’s campaign to ban a song is as ludicrous as it is dangerous. Banning ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ not only represent[s] a senseless attack on Hongkongers’ freedom of expression; it also violates international human rights law.” The U.S. State Department said the court ban was a “blow to the international reputation” of Hong Kong. 

Some of this blowback may have made a mark within the Hong Kong government. On Thursday, Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of the key decision-making Executive Council and a senior counsel, stated, “Under ‘one country, two systems’, we must be careful not to give people the impression that we are neglecting Hong Kong’s status as an inclusive society while safeguarding national security,” adding, “After all, you can never eliminate [this song] from the whole world.”

It was Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal that overturned the lower court’s dismissal of the initial injunction request. In a report published on Tuesday by the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, Alyssa Fong and Samuel Bickett analyzed how the participation of foreign judges in Hong Kong’s judicial system undermines the city’s freedoms

A vestige of British colonial rule allows common law judges from outside of Hong Kong to serve on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. There are currently nine foreign nonpermanent judges (“NPJs”) serving on the court from Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. 

Historically, under the Basic Law, the presence of overseas NPJs has benefited the Hong Kong judiciary and the standing of the Court. Since the introduction of the National Security Law and Article 23 legislation in Hong Kong, however, the legal system in Hong Kong has been reshaped to serve the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian regime. At this point, the overseas NPJs provide little if any benefit to the remaining vestiges of the city’s rights-based order. Instead, the Hong Kong authorities are using the prestige of the retired judges who sit on the Court of Final Appeal to legitimise their human rights abuses and the undermining of Hong Kong’s rule of law. 

[…] Some overseas NPJs have also directly participated in political cases and ruled against political dissidents [at least five times]. These rulings are particularly problematic as they are used by the government to provide legitimacy to the crackdown.

[…] An additional issue exists with respect to the four overseas NPJs who are members of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom: These dual roles pose conflicts that are difficult if not impossible to reconcile. [Source]

Last week, Anouk Wear and Athena Tong published a piece in the Jamestown China Brief describing how Article 23 national security legislation facilitates the export of Hong Kong’s human rights violations:

The Safeguarding National Security Ordinance (SNSO) introduced under Article 23 of the Basic Law prohibits five types of activities which HKSAR officials intend to declare as “offenses,” and has proposed provisions which are vague and criminalize the peaceful exercise of human rights while undermining rights to fair trials and due process in the HKSAR.

The SNSO is designed to specifically target collaborations with foreigners and foreign organizations and increases the power of the PRC to interpret the law in the HKSAR, further eroding the city’s judicial independence and high degree of autonomy. The SNSO’s global jurisdiction and extraterritorial clauses also echo PRC laws.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) conforms to broader trends in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) approach to human rights and international norms by echoing tactics the PRC has used on its own dissidents both at home and abroad. These approaches may also serve as a playbook for other authoritarian and aspiring authoritarian regimes.

The HKSAR and PRC employ several identical narratives in rebutting external criticism including whataboutism and the narrative is that international human rights discourse is derivative of western hegemony. [Source]


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