A judge in Hong Kong on Monday postponed deciding on a petition to ban the online distribution of a popular pro-democracy protest song in a case that could further challenge how technology companies operate in the Chinese territory.
After asking the government to be more specific about the breadth of its request, the judge set another hearing for July 21.
The authorities in Hong Kong have been cracking down on anything they consider a threat to national security, targeting individuals with arrests and prosecution.
The song at issue in Monday’s court hearing, “Glory to Hong Kong,” has been a particular flashpoint for the government, because it is considered the anthem of the protests that challenged China’s campaign to crack down on political dissent in the former British colony.
The government filed a court petition last week arguing that “Glory to Hong Kong” was used to “insult” China’s national anthem. While not naming any defendants, the filing included 32 links to the song on YouTube. And in December, the Hong Kong authorities criticized Google for displaying the protest song under search results for Hong Kong’s national anthem.
On Monday, Judge Wilson Chan of the High Court in Hong Kong pressed a representative for the government on a number of points including clarifying the kinds of defendants the petition would apply to.
“The judge was trying to make sure some of the basics were to be met if he was going to grant an injunction today,” said Kevin Yam, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law based in Melbourne, Australia.
The impact of the case on how the tech companies operate in Hong Kong remains to be seen.
Google and Meta established offices in Hong Kong over a decade ago, and today each has up to several hundred employees there. Twitter opened an office in 2015 but closed it two years later. It no longer has staff in the city.
If forced to remove links related to the song from their online platforms for users in Hong Kong, the companies could use a common technology known as geo-blocking, said George Chen, former head of public policy for Greater China at Meta and the managing editor of The Asia Group, a consulting firm based in Washington.
Alphabet, the parent company of Google, declined to comment. Meta did not respond to requests for comment.
Tensions began to escalate between tech companies and the Hong Kong authorities in 2020, when Hong Kong passed an expansive national security law aimed at stamping out opposition to the ruling Communist Party. The case on Monday was not brought formally under the national security law, but the government cited it last week as a reason the court should grant its request.
Requests by the authorities to take down content on the internet have soared since the law was passed. Hong Kong officials sought the removal of 183 items from services such as YouTube and Google search in the second half of 2022, a 10-year peak mostly caused by an overall uptick in national security-related requests, according to Google. The company refused about half of those requests.
Joy Dong contributed reporting from Hong Kong.