Hong Kong demands online platforms remove banned protest song

Hong Kong's appeal court on Wednesday banned 'Glory to Hong Kong,' a protest song that emerged during the city's massive democracy demonstrations in 2019 (Isaac LAWRENCE)
Hong Kong's appeal court on Wednesday banned 'Glory to Hong Kong,' a protest song that emerged during the city's massive democracy demonstrations in 2019 (Isaac LAWRENCE)

Hong Kong demanded Wednesday that a protest song popular during pro-democracy demonstrations be removed from the internet after a court banned it, judging it was a "weapon" to incite violent protests in 2019.

The case has been closely watched for how it would affect tech firms and internet platform operators -- a concern that has been raised internationally over the free flow of information in Hong Kong.

Wednesday's ban comes after a campaign by the city's authorities against the song, which has seen them demand it be removed from Google's internet search results and other content-sharing platforms -- a request that has been largely rebuffed.

"The government... will communicate with relevant internet service providers, request or demand them to remove relevant content in accordance with the injunction order," said Paul Lam, the semi-autonomous city's Secretary for Justice.

The move is to "persuade the internet service providers not to provide the convenience and not to facilitate the commission of unlawful acts," Lam told reporters.

"Glory to Hong Kong" is the first song to be banned in the former British colony since it was handed over to China in 1997.

The song, secretly recorded by a an anonymous orchestra, grew popular during the protests. Its defiant lyrics incorporate the key protest slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times".

The Hong Kong government's first attempt to get an official injunction was refused by the High Court last year in a surprise ruling, which said a ban could have a "chilling effect" on innocent third parties.

Angering the city's government, the song has in recent years been played at several international sporting events, with event organisers mistaking it for the Chinese territory's anthem.

Hong Kong has no anthem of its own, and uses China's "March of the Volunteers".

Reversing a lower court's decision last year, appeal judge Jeremy Poon wrote in a judgement that the composer of the song had "intended it to be a 'weapon' and so it had become".

"It had been used as an impetus to propel the violent protests plaguing Hong Kong since 2019. It is powerful in arousing emotions among certain fractions of the society," he said.

The song can no longer be broadast or performed "with criminal intent", or disseminated or reproduced on internet-based platforms, though the injunction contained exceptions for "academic activity and news activity" -- a tweak the government made after earlier questioning by judges.

The judgement said an injunction order was "necessary" because internet platform operators "indicated that they are ready to accede to the Government's request if there is a court order".

Industry group Asia Internet Coalition, representing tech gians such as Google and Spotify, said it was assessing the implications of the decision "to determine its impact on businesses".

"We believe that a free and open internet is fundamental to the city's ambitions to become an international technology and innovation hub," said the group's managing director Jeff Paine.

Soon after the judgement was handed down, Beijing authorities said the ban was a "necessary" for "safeguarding national security".

- 'Policing the internet' -

Hong Kong-based cybersecurity expert Anthony Lai explained that if a platform was to comply with the ban, they would have to ensure the song cannot have a Hong Kong IP address or Hong Kong users cannot access the song.

"I understand the government's need to defend national security, but I worry it would take up too much of their resources to police the whole internet," Lai told AFP.

After the ban was announced, a few YouTube links of the song -- listed in Wednesday's judgement document -- appeared to be inaccessible, though many others remained up.

Lam insisted the ban did not hurt the city's free speech.

"Free flow of information is of crucial importance to Hong Kong," he said, adding "we are concerned with very specific unlawful behaviours".

Amnesty International's director for China, Sarah Brooks, decried the ban as "ludicrous" and "dangerous", representing "a senseless attack on Hongkongers’ freedom of expression" which "violates international human rights law".

The United States also slammed the ban, with State Department spokesman Matthew Miller saying the move represented "the latest blow to the international reputation of a city that previously prided itself on having an independent judiciary protecting the free exchange of information, ideas and goods".

Since 2020, after the protests were quashed and Beijing's national security law enacted, public dissent has largely been absent. The bulk of pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians have either been arrested, silenced, or fled Hong Kong.