Hong Kong is targeting Western Big Tech companies in its new ban of a popular protest song

It wasn’t exactly surprising when, on Wednesday May 8, a Hong Kong appeals court sided with the city government to take down “Glory to Hong Kong” from the internet. The trial, in which no one represented the defense, was the culmination of a years-long battle over the song that has become the unofficial anthem for protesters fighting China’s tightening control and police brutality in the city. But it remains an open question how exactly Western big tech companies will respond. Even as the injunction is narrowly designed to make it easier for them to comply, the companies may still be seen as aiding authoritarian control and obstructing internet freedom if they do so.  

Google, Apple, Meta, Spotify, and more have spent the last several years largely refusing to cooperate with previous efforts by the Hong Kong government to prevent the spread of the song, which the government has claimed is a threat to national security. But the government has also hesitated to leverage criminal law to force them to comply with requests for removal of content, which could risk international uproar and have a negative effect on the city’s economy. 

Now, the new ruling seemingly finds a third option: By providing the platforms with a civil injunction that doesn’t invoke criminal prosecution—which is similar to how copyright violations are enforced—the platforms can theoretically face less reputational blowback when they comply with the court order.

“If you look closely at the judgment, it’s basically tailor-made for the tech companies at stake,” says Chung Ching Kwong, a senior analyst at the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an advocacy organization that connects legislators from over 30 countries to try to hold China accountable. She believes the language in the judgment suggests the tech companies would be ready to comply now that there’s a court decision ordering the song’s removal.

A Google spokesperson says the company is reviewing the court’s judgment and didn’t respond to specific questions sent by MIT Technology Review. A Meta spokesperson directed the question to the Asia Internet Coalition, a trade group representing many tech companies in the Asia-Pacific region, which didn’t immediately reply to questions sent via email. Apple and Spotify didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

But no matter what these companies do next, the ruling is already having an effect: Just over 24 hours after the court order, some of the 32 YouTube videos that are explicitly named in the injunction as requiring removal were inaccessible for users worldwide, not just in Hong Kong. 

While it’s unclear whether the videos were removed by the platform or by their creators, experts say the court decision will almost certainly set a precedent for more content to be censored from Hong Kong’s internet in the future.

“Censorship of the song would be a clear violation of internet freedom and freedom of expression,” says Yaqiu Wang, the research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, a human rights advocacy group. “Google and other internet companies should use all available channels to challenge the decision.” 

Erasing a song from the internet

Since “Glory to Hong Kong” was first uploaded to YouTube in August 2019 by an anonymous group called Dgx Music, it’s been adored by protesters and applauded as their anthem. Its popularity only grew after China passed the harsh Hong Kong national security law in 2020. 

It also unsurprisingly became a major flashpoint. With lyrics like, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” the city and national Chinese governments were wary of its spread. 

Their fears escalated when the song was repeatedly mistaken for China’s national anthem at international events, and was broadcast in sporting events after Hong Kong athletes won. By mid 2023, the mistake, intentional or not, had happened 887 times, according to the Hong Kong government’s request for the content’s removal; the request to the court credits YouTube videos and Google search results referring to the song as the “Hong Kong National Anthem” as the reason. 

The government has been arresting people for performing the song on the ground in Hong Kong, but it has been harder to prosecute the online activity since most of the videos and music were uploaded anonymously, and Hong Kong, unlike mainland China, has historically had a free internet. This meant officials needed to explore new approaches to content removal. 

To comply or not to comply

Using the controversial 2020 national security law as legal justification to make requests for removal of certain content deemed threatening, the Hong Kong government has been able to exert pressure on local companies, like internet service providers (ISPs). “In Hong Kong, all the major internet service providers are locally owned or Chinese-owned. For business reasons, probably within the last 20 years, most of the foreign investors like Verizon left on their own,” says Charles Mok, a researcher at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center and a former legislator in Hong Kong. “So right now, the government is focusing on telling the customer-facing internet service providers to do the blocking.” And it seems to have been somewhat effective, with a few websites for human rights activist organizations becoming inaccessible locally.

But the city government can’t get its way as easily when the content is on foreign-owned platforms like YouTube or Facebook. Back in 2020, most major Western companies declared they would pause processing data requests from the Hong Kong government while they assessed the law. Over time, some of them have started answering government requests again. But they’ve largely remained firm: Over the first six months of 2023, for example, Meta received 41 requests from the Hong Kong government to obtain user data and answered 0; during the same period, Google received requests for removing 164 items from Google services and ended up removing 82 of them, according to both companies’ transparency reports. Google specifically mentioned that it chose to not remove two YouTube videos and one Google Drive file related to “Glory to Hong Kong.”

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. 

“I think both sides are navigating this balancing act. So the government finally figured out a way that they thought might be able to solve the impasse: by going to the court and narrowly seeking an injunction,” Mok says.

That happened in June 2023, when Hong Kong’s government requested a court injunction to ban the distribution of the song online with the purpose of “inciting others to commit secession.” It named 32 YouTube videos explicitly, including the original version and live performances, translations in other languages, instrumental and opera versions, and an interview of the original creators. But the order would also cover “any adaptation of the song, the melody and/or lyrics of which are substantially the same as the song,” according to court documents. 

The injunction went through a year of back-and-forth hearings, including a lower court ruling that briefly swatted down the ban. But now, the Court of Appeal has granted the government approval. The case can theoretically be appealed one last time, but with no defendants present, that’s unlikely to happen.

The key difference between this action and previous attempts to remove content is that this is a civil injunction, unlike a criminal prosecution—meaning it is, at least legally speaking, closer to a copyright takedown request. In turn, a platform could arguably be less likely to take a reputational hit as long as it removes the content upon request. 

Kwong believes this will indeed make platforms more likely to cooperate and there have already been pretty clear signs to that effect. In one hearing in December, the government was asked by the court to consult online platforms for the feasibility of the injunction. The final judgment this week says that while the platforms “have not taken part in these proceedings, they have indicated that they are ready to accede to the Government’s request if there is a court order.”

“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 violating a civil injunction than prosecuting someone based on criminal offenses, because now the government won’t need to prove criminal intent.

The chilling effect

Immediately after the injunction, human rights advocates called on tech companies to remain committed to their values. “Companies like Google and Apple have repeatedly claimed that they stand by the universal right to freedom of expression. They should put their ideals into practice,” says Freedom House’s Wang. “Google and other tech companies should thoroughly document government demands, and publish detailed transparency reports on content takedowns, both for those initiated by the authorities and those done by the companies themselves.”

Without making their plans clear, it’s too early to know just how tech companies will react. But right after the injunction was granted, the song largely remained available on most platforms, including YouTube, iTunes, and Spotify, for Hong Kong users, according to the South China Morning Post. On iTunes, the song even returned to the top of the download rankings a few hours after the injunction.

One key factor that may still determine corporate cooperation is how far the content removal requests go. There will surely be more videos of the song that are uploaded to YouTube, not to mention independent websites hosting the videos and music for more people to access. Will the government go after each of them too?

The Hong Kong government has previously said in court hearings that it only seeks a local restriction of the online content, meaning content will only be inaccessible to users physically in the city, which large platforms like YouTube can do so without difficulty. 

Theoretically, this allows local residents to still circumvent the ban by using VPN software, but not everyone would be technologically savvy enough to do so. And that wouldn’t do much to minimize the larger chilling effect on free speech, says Kwong from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. 

“As a Hong Konger living abroad, I do rely on Hong Kong services or international services based in Hong Kong to get a hold of what’s happening in the city. I do use YouTube Hong Kong to see certain things, and I do use Spotify Hong Kong or Apple Music because I want access to Cantopop,” she says. “At the same time, you worry about what you can share with friends in Hong Kong and whatnot. We don’t want to put them into trouble by sharing things that they are not supposed to see, which they should be able to see.”

The court made at least two explicit exemptions to the song’s ban, for “lawful activities conducted in connection with the song, such as those for the purpose of academic activity and news activity.” But even the implementation of this could be incredibly complex and confusing in practice. “In the current political context in Hong Kong, I don’t see anyone willing to take the risk,” Kwong says. 

The government has already arrested prominent journalists in the name of endangering national security, and a new law passed in 2024 has expanded the crimes that can be prosecuted on national security grounds. As with all efforts to suppress free speech, the impact of vague boundaries that encourage self-censorship on potentially sensitive topics is often sprawling and hard to measure. 

“Nobody knows where the actual red line is,” Kwong says.

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