Google blocks access to pro-democracy protest song in Hong Kong after court ruling

A YouTube video of the protest song Glory to Hong Kong is blocked for local users, as of Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Photo: Screenshot via HKFP. Used with permission.

This report was written by Tome Grundy and originally published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on May 15, 2024. An edited version is published below as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

Google has blocked Hong Kong users from accessing the pro-democracy protest song “Glory to Hong Kong” on YouTube (which is owned by Google) following a court order. It comes days after Secretary for Justice Paul Lam said the government was “anxious” to hear the tech company’s response to the ruling.

On May 8, a court banned people from “broadcasting, performing, printing, publishing, selling, offering for sale, distributing, disseminating, displaying or reproducing” the song with seditious intent. The Court of Appeal sided with the government, overturning last year’s decision by a lower court rejecting the injunction, citing free speech concerns.

One week later, on May 15, the 32 videos listed in the court order were all replaced with a message on YouTube stating: “This content is not available on this country domain due to a court order.” However, some versions remain accessible, as do versions on other platforms such as Spotify.

“We are disappointed by the Court’s decision but are complying with its removal order by blocking access to the listed videos for viewers in Hong Kong. We’ll continue to consider our options for an appeal, to promote access to information,” a spokesperson for YouTube said in a statement sent to HKFP.

YouTube said it had clear policies for removal requests from governments, restricting content as a response to legal processes. It added that in addition to the 32 YouTube takedowns, links to the videos on Google Search will no longer be visible to users in Hong Kong.

Despite the blocks, the tech giant said it shared the concerns previously expressed by human rights organisations about the chilling effect of the court order.

It is not the first time Hongkongers have encountered apparent internet censorship. As of 2022, the website for NGO Hong Kong Watch remains partially blocked by internet service providers in the city. Websites for the anti-government platform HKChronicles, Taiwan’s Transitional Justice Commission, and HK Charter 2021 are also inaccessible.

A government campaign against the song

“Glory to Hong Kong” was released on YouTube by a local songwriter named “Thomas” and his team, on August 31, 2019, during the height of the citywide pro-democracy demonstrations and unrest. It was swiftly popularised among protesters and democrats.

Its lyrics incorporate the now-illegal key protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” which has been declared by the government as “pro-independence” and capable of inciting secession.

Authorities rolled out a campaign against the song in November 2022, when “Glory to Hong Kong” was accidentally played at a Rugby Sevens game in South Korea instead of China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers”. It emerged that an intern reportedly downloaded it from the internet, mistakenly thinking it was Hong Kong’s national anthem.

The government later demanded it be removed from Google’s internet search results and other content-sharing platforms such as YouTube, to little avail.

Secretary for Innovation, Technology and Industry Sun Dong said last July that Google had not acceded to the city’s request to remove “Glory to Hong Kong” from its search results.

“Google said you must have evidence to prove that [the song] violated local laws, that [we] needed a court order,” Sun said. “Very well, since you brought up a legal issue, let’s use legal means to solve the problem.”

Not a ‘forbidden’ song

Speaking on Commercial Radio on Sunday, Secretary for Justice Lam said that even though the court had issued a ban on certain acts linked to the song, it should not be regarded as a “forbidden song.”

“We should not use the term ‘forbidden song.’ The ban targets acts which utilise the song to fight for Hong Kong independence… as a weapon praise of violence and the pursuit of Hong Kong independence,” Lam claimed.

He added that the media can still report news of the song and scholars can research it, “such as how it promoted Hong Kong independence.”

Whilst pro-independence protesters were spotted during the 2019 demonstrations, neither the song’s lyrics — nor the movement’s official demands — mention independence for the city.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”

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