YouTube blocks Hong Kong protest anthem after court order

May 15, 2024
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Google’s YouTube on Tuesday said it would comply with a court decision and block access inside Hong Kong to 32 video links deemed prohibited content, in what critics say is a blow to freedoms in the financial hub amid a security clampdown.

The action follows a government application granted by Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal requesting the ban of a protest anthem called “Glory to Hong Kong.” The judges warned that dissidents seeking to incite secession could weaponize the song for use against the state.

In comments criticizing the court order, YouTube said the ruling would raise skepticism around the Hong Kong government’s work to foster the digital economy and reclaim its reputation as a predictable place for doing business.

“We are disappointed by the Court’s decision but are complying with its removal order,” YouTube said in a statement, saying it shared human rights groups’ concerns that the content ban could chill free expression online. “We’ll continue to consider our options for an appeal, to promote access to information.”

Some observers, including the U.S. government, say the ban will further undermine Hong Kong’s international reputation as a financial hub, and raise concerns about the erosion of freedoms and its commitment to the free flow of information.

“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.

The Hong Kong government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The action is not a worldwide first for the U.S. technology sector or Google parent Alphabet, which has restricted items when legally required to do so. In China, it has removed content.

In 2010, Google took its search engine out of mainland China, where YouTube is not available.

A spokesperson for YouTube, part of Mountain View-based Alphabet in California, said the geoblocking of videos would take effect immediately for viewers in Hong Kong.

Eventually, links to the videos will no longer show up on Google Search in Hong Kong as the company’s systems process the changes, YouTube said. Attempts to view the song on YouTube from Hong Kong displayed the message: “This content is not available on this country domain due to a court order.”

Hong Kong does not have an official anthem. “Glory to Hong Kong” was written in 2019 during widespread pro-democracy protests that year, becoming an unofficial alternative anthem to China’s “March of the Volunteers.”

In recent years, Hong Kong officials have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for a sweeping national security crackdown on dissent that has seen many opposition democrats jailed and liberal media outlets and civil society groups shuttered.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee that its freedoms would be preserved under a “one country, two systems” formula.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman has said that stopping the song’s spread was necessary for Hong Kong to safeguard national security.

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