A Hong Kong judge said on Friday that 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,” which was the anthem of the 2019 protests that ended with Beijing taking tighter control over Hong Kong. The authorities argue that the song is an insult to China’s national anthem and could make people believe that Hong Kong is an independent nation. The government has banned it from schools and lashed out when it was played, apparently by mistake, at sports competitions.
On Friday Judge Anthony Chan, after hearing three hours of legal arguments, said he would issue his decision on July 28. The government is seeking an injunction to prohibit the publication or distribution online of “Glory to Hong Kong.” Anyone violating the injunction could face prison for contempt of court.
The case is being closely watched by tech companies, because it has raised the specter of more government control of online speech in Hong Kong.
“The business community should take notice — the courts won’t be able to protect them as long as the Hong Kong government can plausibly claim that national security interests are in play,” said Thomas E. Kellogg, the executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University.
Google has resisted the government’s public requests that “Glory to Hong Kong” not show up in search results or on its sibling service, YouTube. But that could change if a court ordered it to abide by the request. Like most tech companies, Google has a policy of removing or restricting access to material that is deemed illegal by a court in certain countries or places.
Google, which is owned by Alphabet, said it would not comment on the case, as did Meta, the parent company of Facebook. Google and Facebook established offices in Hong Kong over a decade ago, and today each has up to several hundred employees in the city. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
The authorities in Hong Kong have increasingly cracked down on what they consider dissent and threats to national security, targeting individuals with arrests, bounties and prosecution.
At the same time, the government is working to pass legislation by early next year that would target what it considers subversive content and close “internet loopholes,” a move that could have more far-reaching consequences and codify the ban into law.
Hong Kong has long attracted foreign businesses seeking access and proximity to China, away from its censorship controls. It has been the only Chinese territory with unfettered access to services such as Google and Facebook, which pulled out of China years ago.
When Google refused a request to remove the song in December, Hong Kong’s security chief called the company’s decision “unthinkable.”
In court on Friday, Benjamin Yu, a lawyer for the government arguing why the song should be banned, said it had been used to “stir up emotions.” He pointed to the arrest of a harmonica player who had played the song outside the British consulate when mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II last year.
Abraham Chan, a lawyer acting as friend of the court to present opposing arguments, said banning the song because of national security could disrupt the free flow of information.
“You can’t simply say ‘Don’t worry about the chilling effects,’” he said.
The Hong Kong authorities have arrested more than 250 people under an expansive national security law Beijing imposed on the city in 2020, aimed at stamping out opposition to the ruling Communist Party.
Compared to “slow-grinding” criminal cases against individuals, an injunction could give the government a quick path to restricting content on online platforms, said Kevin Yam, a legal researcher and former Hong Kong lawyer based in Melbourne.
No company or individual was named as a direct defendant in the government’s injunction application, which included 32 links to “Glory to Hong Kong” on YouTube.
But many fear that a court injunction against “Glory to Hong Kong” could be a step toward more official control over the internet in Hong Kong, where the internet remains mostly free of censorship despite Beijing’s heavier hand in governing the territory.
American tech companies like Facebook and Twitter were blocked from mainland China in 2009. A year later, Google shut down its China services and rerouted users to its search engine in Hong Kong, then a bastion of political freedom on Chinese soil.
Since the national security law was put in place, requests to tech companies by the Hong Kong authorities to remove content on the internet have soared.
Chang Che contributed reporting from Seoul.