Hong Kong tells Google to bury protest song in anthem searches


HONG KONG — US tech giant Google is under increasing pressure from the Hong Kong government and thus its Chinese partnership to embed a politically sensitive pro-democracy song in its search results.

The move illustrates escalating tensions between multinational tech giants and Chinese officials as Beijing seeks to bury any opposition left over from the pro-democracy protests that began in Hong Kong in 2019.

The Hong Kong government’s renewed concern about the song comes after at least two incidents in the past few months where the song was mistakenly used to represent Hong Kong athletes at sports matches.

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The song’s appearance at sporting events abroad sparked angry reactions from Hong Kong officials. Security minister Chris Tang on Monday said the government “will use every means possible to rectify the situation”.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong leader John Lee said the government will continue to correspond with and follow up with Google and that it is possible to rearrange search results through ads and remove items that violate the law.

“Legal status aside, the national anthem represents the dignity and sentiments of a country and its people,” Lee said. “This is a moral issue. I believe any responsible agency should take this seriously.”

Since Hong Kong’s transition from British rule to Beijing in 1997, Hong Kong’s official anthem has been the same as China’s: “Volunteer March.”

However, during the 2019 protests, demonstrators popularized the pro-democracy song “Glory to Hong Kong”, which has come to be widely seen as the “anthem” of the movement – apparently messing up Google’s search algorithms.

Millions rallied in peaceful protests against an extradition law that year, but escalating violence amid strong police response and protesters’ varying targets saw Beijing impose a national security law in 2020 that was used to curtail protest freedoms. , speaking and academic research.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment, but confirmed that the company has not changed the ranking of organic search results determined by algorithms. The company says it only removes content that violates its policies or is considered illegal in different jurisdictions.

The top results for a Google search for “Hong Kong national anthem” in English are the “Glory to Hong Kong” Wikipedia page with text that some say calls the “Hong Kong national anthem”. The next result is the Wikipedia entry for “Volunteers’ March,” and the video presentations are clips of the pro-democracy song on YouTube.

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In November, a lawmaker staged a protest at Google’s Hong Kong office, delivering a letter to the reception, saying that Google, as a major company, had the “responsibility” to delete “the song about Hong Kong’s independence”.

Several other members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislative council recognized the gravity of the incident and demanded that the government regularly review search results and notify service providers to remove “false information concerning national sovereignty”.

Anger at an international tech firm is somewhat out of character in Hong Kong, where access to online information is largely free compared to on the mainland and is part of its appeal for multinationals.

A pro-democracy song was played in Dubai two weeks ago, then interrupted by Hong Kong, which won a gold medal in a weightlifting event, warned the organizers.

In November, an instrumental version of the song was played in full at an international rugby match featuring the Hong Kong team in Incheon, South Korea.

Hong Kong authorities promptly launched a police investigation, and the chief secretary summoned the South Korean consul to say the government “strongly condemns and opposes the incident” and to request an investigation.

Police on Monday arrested a 49-year-old man under sedition law for allegedly sharing footage of the South Korean incident and expressing gratitude to Incheon for “recognizing Hong Kong’s national anthem.”

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