Google is facing unprecedented heat in Hong Kong as local authorities attempt to censor a popular pro-democracy anthem — and the high-stakes spat has provoked speculation that the US tech giant could exit the market entirely.
The Asian business mecca’s department of justice is seeking a court order banning internet firms including Google from broadcasting or distributing the “Glory to Hong Kong” protest song.
The government’s application also called for the removal of 32 YouTube videos featuring the anthem.
The injunction request is arguably Hong Kong’s most aggressive attempt yet to censor political content on US-run tech platforms.
In 2020, Beijing passed a tough national security law that granted the Chinese Communist Party sweeping power to crack down on dissent.
A full Google retreat from Hong Kong in the near future has become “very likely,” said Xiaomeng Lu, director of consulting firm Eurasia Group’s geotechnology practice.
She argues the current legal tussle is following the same pattern that ultimately led Google to pull its search engine from mainland China in 2010.
“This is the same episode being replayed,” Lu told The Post. “It may take a while – it may not be next month. But I think the eventuality will kick in, whether it’s in a few months or in a year, a couple of years. I don’t think this will take five years.”
Hong Kong’s High Court has set a July 21 hearing date to consider the government’s request.
If granted, it would weaken Google’s standing in the city, where pro-Beijing officials have already slammed the company for allowing “Glory to Hong Kong” to appear at the top of search engine results.
A restraining order also could open other US tech firms to a new wave of legal action over their content policies.
In their filing, local authorities argued the lyrics of “Glory to Hong Kong” advocate “secession.”
Hong Kong officials have been embarrassed by recent episodes at international sporting events, including a December rugby tournament in South Korea, in which the protest song was mistakenly played as the national anthem instead of China’s “March of the Volunteers.”
They blamed the latter incident on Google and demanded the company bury “Glory to Hong Kong” in its search results.
Google fired back at the time, noting it does not manually control search results and would not “remove web results except for specific reasons outlined in our global policy documentation.”
Some experts say Hong Kong is simply too valuable to Google’s operations in Asia to abandon.
Among them is Niki Christoff, a prominent tech policy consultant who spend eight years working in strategic communications at Google, including at the time the company stopped offering its search engine in mainland China.
Christoff argued Google “absolutely cannot cede the Chinese market for business purposes,” noting such an exit would effectively close off access to a huge market of consumers and have cascading effects for its Android operating system, the Google Play Store and YouTube.
Google and other tech firms generally comply with local laws, even if they do not align with US doctrine.
For example, Google has taken down YouTube videos criticizing Thailand’s monarchy in recent years.
“My hunch is that there might be a discussion about a historic stance on free speech versus the business consequences of doing the takedown, and maybe some of the press consequences of doing it,” Christoff said. “But dollars to donuts, I think they just take it down and continue operating.”
Publicly, Google has given little indication regarding how it will react.
When reached for comment, a Google spokesperson said the company is “committed to making information accessible to users.”
The spokesperson did not address the pending Hong Kong court battle.
Kathy Lee, Google Cloud’s managing director for Greater China, recently told the South China Morning Post the company was committed to its Hong Kong operations and working with local regulators.
When reached for comment about Hong Kong’s proposed injunction, an AIC spokesperson said the group “will not be commenting on the matter at this point,” citing the looming court date.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai and the company’s board of directors are likely working overtime to salvage the situation, according to Stefano Bonini, an expert on boardroom dynamics and professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
“The question that I think they’re weighing on the board right now is, ‘Yeah, we have an increasing cost of staying there, but it’s still an important market,’” Bonini said. “’Do we want to [exit] and totally cede to the pressures of an authoritarian government and curb the freedom of speech?’”
Google isn’t the only Western operator facing censorship pressure in Hong Kong.
Earlier this month, popular versions of “Glory to Hong Kong” appeared to disappear from Apple’s iTunes chart and were also inaccessible on Facebook and Instagram, Reuters reported.
The song was also briefly removed from Spotify‘s platform, though they later reappeared.
Meanwhile, signs of Google’s growing hesitance to operate in Hong Kong have already begun to emerge.
Experts suggested the companies are worried about running afoul of the region’s national security law.
In 2021, the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry trade group that represents Google, Twitter, Meta and various other US firms, warned Hong Kong’s government that the companies could exit in response to a controversial “anti-doxxing” law.
Despite the warning, Hong Kong’s legislature later passed the bill. So far, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are all still available in Hong Kong.
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