ARTICLE 19 and AppleCensorship warn about efforts to exploit the judicial process in Hong Kong to arbitrarily restrict access to pro-democracy protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong.
Since Wednesday, versions of the 2019 song have disappeared from multiple streaming platforms in Hong Kong–Apple’s iTunes Store, Spotify, Facebook and Instagram’s Reels.
Although Spotify has confirmed that the song had been taken down by DGX Music who owns and distributes the title, the sudden removal follows efforts by the Hong Kong government last week to seek a legal injunction banning all intermediaries from broadcasting or distributing the anthem. These are the latest measures to suppress any and all critical expression in the country and must be challenged by concerned companies.
Michael Caster, Interim Head of ARTICLE 19 Asia Programme commented:
The sudden disappearance of this meaningful protest anthem from streaming media services is about more than just free expression in Hong Kong, because for many users censorship doesn’t end at physical borders. If the content was removed by the platforms, then these companies are doing the heavy lifting of internationalising Beijing’s censorship. If it has been removed by the creators, then we must wonder about intimidation.
“Internet intermediaries operating in Hong Kong must speak in one, unequivocal voice, that they will refuse all arbitrary content removal orders and commit to protecting internet freedom. They should be clear about their red lines.
Benjamin Ismail, Project Director at AppleCensorship, a project of GreatFire, said:
When content like this becomes unavailable online, we shouldn’t have to deploy efforts each time to figure out what is happening, whether it is platforms complying with restrictive orders or individuals being intimidated into self-censorship.
ARTICLE 19 and AppleCensorship call on the Hong Kong authorities to cease this type of censorship practices. We also call on the concerned platforms to carefully assess possible negative consequences of implementing the requests from the authorities to censor the content. They should challenge unjustified requests for content removals.
On 6 June, the Hong Kong government sought a court order banning the ‘broadcasting, performing, printing, publishing, selling, offering for sale, distributing, disseminating, displaying or reproducing in any way’ the protest anthem which the government claims constitutes secession. The injunction would block, and potentially criminalise, all internet intermediaries, from the streaming media platforms noted above to YouTube and Google, from providing access to the song for Hong Kong internet users.
On Monday, 12 June, a judge postponed its decision on the government’s petition until 21 July, following a request for clarity on the intended scope and types of defendants the court order would implicate, presumably with attention to the role of foreign technology companies. While the court has postponed its ruling on the government’s petition, the song’s sudden disappearance from the leading platforms raises questions as to whether it is the result of platforms responding to pressure, or threats to the individual content distributors. Both would constitute arbitrary interference with the freedom of expression and access to information.
This is not the first time Hong Kong authorities have sought to pressure foreign internet intermediaries to censor results for the protest anthem.
The song rose to prominence during the 2019 pro-democracy protests, as the unofficial movement anthem. As a result of its association with democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, it was banned in 2020 following the imposition of the National Security Law, which defined new crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces carrying potential life imprisonment.
In December 2022, Hong Kong’s Security Secretary Chris Tang said the government would seek to ‘correct’ Google’s search algorithm concerning results for Glory to Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee reiterated the message that the government would seek to pressure Google to alter its search algorithm to bury the activist anthem. Google, for its part, in 2022 refused to change its search results to accommodate the demands of the Hong Kong government.
Under international human rights norms, internet intermediaries should be shielded from liability for third-party content as a fundamental principle of protecting the freedom of expression and information online. In 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression encouraged states not to impose policies that would pressure businesses to unnecessarily or disproportionately interfere with freedom of expression. The Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability, furthermore, hold that any laws on content restriction concerning intermediaries such as streaming platforms must be necessary and proportionate and respect due process. Transparency and accountability must be built into any such provisions.