The Hong Kong authorities suffered a surprising setback on Friday when a judge denied their request to ban a popular pro-democracy song from the internet.
The government was seeking an injunction that could have given it the power to force Google and other tech companies to restrict access to the song in Hong Kong.
Since coming under the tighter grip of Beijing several years ago, Hong Kong has jailed political opponents, quashed street protest and shuttered pro-democracy newspapers. But the internet, in contrast to mainland China, has remained largely free of government control.
At issue in Friday’s ruling was “Glory to Hong Kong,” which was the unofficial anthem of 2019 democracy protests and has been a continuing point of contention for the authorities, who consider it an insult to China’s national anthem. It has been banned from Hong Kong schools and has drawn angry official rebukes when played, apparently by mistake, at sports competitions.
The Hong Kong government was seeking a court injunction against the publication or distribution of “Glory to Hong Kong” with “seditious intention” on the internet or in other media.
But Judge Anthony Chan denied the request, ruling that what the government wanted was too broad and effectively targeted everyone in Hong Kong. He wrote that the injunction could have had a “chilling effect” on free speech in Hong Kong.
“Freedom of expression is not absolute in nature but is nonetheless a highly important right that cannot be lawfully restricted without the requirements of legal certainty and proportionality being met,” he added.
Judge Chan also said that it would have been wrong to grant the injunction because existing criminal laws already gave the authorities the power to prosecute people for spreading the song, and that this ban would have been difficult to enforce, and unnecessary. Numerous people in Hong Kong have been arrested or charged for playing the song in public under an expansive national security law that Beijing imposed on the territory in 2020.
The injunction case has been closely watched in the Hong Kong business and tech communities. Foreign firms seeking access to China have long seen the city as an attractive hub, away from censorship controls in the rest of the country.
The Hong Kong government argued in court that “Glory to Hong Kong” should be banned because it could mislead people into thinking that Hong Kong is an independent state. When Google refused a public request to remove the song in December, Hong Kong’s security chief called the company’s decision “unthinkable.”
The injunction request filed by the government in June did not name Google but listed 32 links to “Glory to Hong Kong” on Google or its sibling company YouTube.
The Department of Justice said in a statement that it was studying the ruling and “considering the way forward.” Google and Meta said Friday that they would not comment on the ruling.
Legal experts and business leaders said they were surprised by the decision, given the Hong Kong courts’ record in ruling on behalf of the government in matters concerning national security. Some said they were encouraged that the judge was willing to hold the government in check.
Kristian Odebjer, a lawyer and the chairman of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said he welcomed the judge’s decision. The “Glory to Hong Kong” case had risked “muddling” the city’s reputation as a place where the internet is open, he said. In China, the authorities block content and websites they don’t like, a system called the Great Firewall.
“The fact that Hong Kong is outside of the Great Firewall, that we have a free flow of information and a free internet, that is clearly the key fundament in what Hong Kong is offering the world, and a key differentiator,” he said.
Kevin Yam, a legal researcher and former Hong Kong lawyer now based in Melbourne, Australia, called Judge Chan’s ruling “brave” but also noted that the judge emphasized the significance of the national security law in his decision.
“National security goes to the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, the core interests of Hong Kong people,” Judge Chan wrote.
On top of the existing national security law, the Hong Kong government is working to pass legislation against subversive actions and content that it describes as “soft resistance” and said it planned to close “internet loopholes.”
Multinational companies have gradually reduced their presence in Hong Kong since 2020. Stringent travel and quarantine rules during the pandemic triggered a wave of departures of executives and skilled workers. Some companies have moved computer servers storing sensitive information to new business hubs elsewhere in Asia, like Singapore.
Facebook and Twitter were blocked from mainland China in 2009. A year later, Google shut down its China services and rerouted users to its search engine in Hong Kong, then a bastion of political freedom on Chinese soil.
Since the national security law was put in place, requests to tech companies by the Hong Kong authorities to remove content on the internet have soared.
Eric Lai, a visiting researcher at King’s College London School of Law, said he didn’t expect Friday’s decision to be the final word on “Glory to Hong Kong.”
“We have to wait and see how the government of Hong Kong will respond and whether there will be more political pressures from Beijing,” Dr. Lai said.