Hong Kong prepares for the end of its open Internet

Hong Kong is bracing for what could be the beginning of the end of its open internet, as the city government tries to ban a protest song from being broadcast online. If a court agrees with the government, experts warn it could set a dangerous precedent for some US tech giants.

The city government applied for a court injunction in June to ban people from broadcasting or distributing Glory to Hong Kongclaiming the song contains a slogan that amounts to a call for secession, one of the four crimes outlawed by Beijing’s sweeping national security law imposed in 2020.

The unofficial anthem of pro-democracy protests in 2019, Glory to Hong Kong it has become so popular that international sporting events have mistakenly played it as the city’s official anthem. In February, the International Ice Hockey Federation played the protest song instead of China’s national anthem, March of the Volunteers, after Hong Kong team beat Iran.

Blame Google for hymn mistakes

Many observers are watching to see how the global internet platforms that host the song, such as YouTube, Meta and Google’s Spotify, will react to an injunction. The government blamed the anthem’s previous errors on the Google algorithm; the Wikipedia page of protest songs is the first result in the search for the national anthem of Hong Kong.

In December, Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang said the government asked Google to change search results to display the correct national anthem, but the tech giant refused. The city did not name Google as a defendant in the case, but its warrant included links to 32 YouTube videos.

The Hong Kong government is attempting to use the courts to pressure major global internet platforms to join its censorship regime, says Thomas Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law. He notes that the government has already used the all-too-clear threat of prosecution to dissuade residents from publicly playing or performing the song. In September, Hong Kong police arrested a harmonica player for alleged sedition after he played the song at a vigil for Queen Elizabeth.

The injunction seeks to take the ban a step further and also attempt to block private access to the song on major internet platforms, Kellogg says.

So far Google has stood firm, but the ruling due for a hearing on Friday could test foreign social media platforms’ commitment to freedom of expression and cast a question mark over their future in Hong Kong.

How tech companies will comply

Most platforms will likely partially comply with an injunction by limiting access to content locally, says George Chen, managing director of The Asia Group, a consulting firm and former public policy chief for Greater China at Meta. If you choose to ignore the court order, there will be legal consequences, Chen says, so this isn’t a high-probability event unless the platform already decides to leave the market.

Hong Kong users will likely be able to bypass any geo-blocking by changing their location in settings or using a VPN. However, tech companies complying with an injunction will strike a new blow at freedom of expression in Hong Kong, where unlike mainland China, residents have enjoyed unlimited access to the web and foreign tech firms like Google and Meta are allowed to operate freely. Free and open internet is among the features that set the city apart from the rest of China and has made it a hub for international companies.

Band Phoenix perform at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap Festival 2023. Friday’s court ruling could deal another blow to freedom of expression in the city.

Ben Marans SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

If they comply, it sends a strong signal that companies are somehow under the whim of the government, that even a company like Google is not safe in Hong Kong, says Lokman Tsui, a researcher at The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and former head of freedom of expression for Asia and the Pacific at Google. The tech giant may also face severe backlash from the US government for being complicit in Chinese political censorship, Tsui adds.

Meta declined to comment on the matter. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Increase controls on the Internet

For Hong Kong residents, a bigger concern is that the city’s censorship efforts won’t end with the song. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last, says Kwong Chung Ching, a digital rights activist and Hong Kong campaign coordinator at the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international legislative coalition aimed at countering China’s influence.

According to Google’s latest transparency report, it has received requests from the Hong Kong government to remove 183 items, mostly from YouTube, in the second half of 2022, including 55 related to national security. It failed to act on nearly half of the takedown requests, including links to children’s books that a court found seditious. A court-ordered injunction could encourage the government to expand its efforts to censor comments and speeches it deems a threat to national security. This is ringing alarm bells for many online service providers in Hong Kong. They may be subject to content moderation coming directly from the government, Kwong says.

There are already signs that the Hong Kong authorities are stepping up their control over the flow of information both online and offline. A small but growing list of websites, including an online museum commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown, have been blocked by local telecommunications networks in recent years. Authorities accused ordinary social media users, from a 23-year-old student studying in Japan to a 48-year-old housewife, of sedition over their online comments. Books by prominent pro-democracy advocates have disappeared from public libraries, and a new channel has recently been established for residents to report titles that could endanger national security.

A new threat to Hong Kong’s Internet freedom looms on the horizon: the imminent enactment of Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s security law. The city’s security chief pledged to plug holes in the Internet and set up online patrols to identify messages and acts of soft resistance under the new legislation.

And these measures will not only affect individual users. It will push companies into a more difficult situation in assessing what is accepted and what is not and where we can draw the line, Kwong says. They may already be having this kind of conversation, especially when it comes to national security. This legislation will only intensify this concern.

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