Technology

Hong Kong judge rejects government request to ban pro-democracy anthem


A Hong Kong court on Friday declined the government’s request to ban the popular protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong,” in a surprise decision that will come as a relief to global tech companies including Apple, Google and Meta, which would have had to censor it — and to many citizens in the city.

As China has exerted ever greater control over Hong Kong, officials sought to ban the unofficial anthem from being shared, sung or even performed anywhere in the semiautonomous city.

The injunction would have posed significant challenges for tech companies, forcing them to stop the distribution of the song on platforms including Facebook, YouTube and iTunes, or be in violation of local law.

Local rights activists feared the ban was a given, considering China’s ever tighter grip on the territory, warning that a ban would allow Beijing to influence freedom of information for internet users everywhere.

But High Court Judge Anthony Chan on Friday ruled that granting the injunction would have “chilling effects.”

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“Innocent people might be discouraged from legitimate activities involving the song for fear of the severe consequences of breaching the Injunction,” the summary of Chan’s decision read.

Ronson Chan, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, welcomed the decision, calling it “ideal” and “reasonable.” The court is sending a strong signal that the government has to be careful when using public power, he said, noting that it could evoke fear in innocent people.

The decision is good news for tech companies in Hong Kong, as it saves them from complying with an order that would damage free expression and the free flow of information, said Eric Yan-ho Lai, a nonresident fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.

“The courts still prioritize their own integrity,” said Lai, who added that the government could appeal the decision.

Google and Meta declined to comment on the decision, and Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Hong Kong’s city government last month asked the court to prohibit the broadcast or distribution of the song, contending that it contains a slogan that advocates secession — a crime under the sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on the city in 2020 after a wave of protests.

The national security law significantly restricted free expression and criminalized activities seen as advocating for Hong Kong’s independence or subverting state power.

If the court had ruled in the government’s favor and granted the injunction, it would have meant not only were the lyrics and melody of “Glory to Hong Kong” considered to incite secession, but also that global tech companies would have had to ensure that the song did not appear in any form on their platforms — effectively carrying out censorship on behalf of the Hong Kong government.

Some legal experts said trials under the injunction would have focused on whether the intent of any specific post was seditious, rather than requiring the tech companies to carry out a blanket takedown. But the difficulty of determining whether a given post on YouTube or result in Google search was made with seditious intent was a factor in Chan’s rejection, according to the decision.

This month, a Hong Kong man was sentenced to three months in prison under the National Anthem Ordinance for creating a video of an athlete receiving a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics that included a rendition of “Glory to Hong Kong” and uploading it to YouTube.

Another man was arrested for sedition, a crime under the national security law, last year for playing the tune on a harmonica during Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.

Given the existence of these other laws, “the Court was not satisfied that the Injunction would be of real utility bearing in mind that the Acts were criminal acts punishable under a robust criminal regime,” read the summary of Chan’s decision.

The Hong Kong government has retroactively enforced the national security law, including with the announcement this month of a cash reward for information that would bring about the arrest of eight activists based in the United States, Australia and Britain. The law explicitly states that it applies to Hong Kong residents located outside of the region.

Given that it had appealed previous cases, the Hong Kong government was likely to appeal Friday’s ruling, experts said, and could even ask Beijing to overrule it.

On Friday, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee told reporters that he had asked the Department of Justice to quickly carry out follow-up work on the verdict, as the government had a responsibility to “prevent actions endangering national security.”

In its application for the injunction, the Hong Kong government cited 32 YouTube videos as examples of the content it wanted blocked.

The day before the court decision, a YouTube search for “Hong Kong national anthem” yielded nearly a dozen videos featuring “Glory to Hong Kong” before any results involving the official national anthem Hong Kong shares with China, “March of the Volunteers.”

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Regardless of Friday’s decision, the ambiguity — and seemingly extraterritorial reach — of Hong Kong’s national security law already had caused compliance officers at tech companies “no end of headache,” said May-Ann Lim, the director of the Fair Tech Institute at the Access Partnership consultancy.

Since the national security law took effect, tech firms such as cloud service providers have performed risk assessments in areas of activity including services to vendors and suppliers, and on-the-ground operations, Lim said.

Companies already were developing their own approach to assessing and addressing the geopolitical angle of doing business in Hong Kong and China, she said.

Adapting to local laws is something tech platforms all over the world already do regularly — for example, in how dating, transport and travel apps show geographically specific matches, Lim said.

Some in Hong Kong’s tech industry say that in the three years since the national security law was imposed on the territory, global tech companies have changed their approach to Hong Kong.

The fact that Google, OpenAI and Microsoft have not made generative AI products — otherwise accessible in dozens of markets around the world — available in Hong Kong shows that companies are proactively changing their approach to the city, said Heatherm Huang, a founder of Measurable AI, which provides consumer data to international e-commerce companies.

“It’s not like the Hong Kong government decided to block those services; the companies decided themselves not to offer them to the Hong Kong public,” Huang said.

Observers suggest that the government still could prosecute people for sharing or performing “Glory to Hong Kong” under existing laws, including the National Anthem Ordinance and the national security law.

“This doesn’t mean the end of the drama — it may feel more like Season One of a long series, as the government will not give up any chance to take care of national security issues, given the current political climate in Hong Kong,” said George Chen, the managing director at the Washington consultancy the Asia Group and a former head of public policy for Greater China at Meta.