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How court rulings in Hong Kong and Australia threaten the global internet

Censorship about gods and kings, tech takedowns, and more are on the radar in this latest edition.
Free Speech Dispatch featured image with Sarah McLaughlin

This year, FIRE launched the Free Speech Dispatch, a regular series covering new and continuing censorship trends and challenges around the world. Our goal is to help readers better understand the global context of free expression. The previous entry addressed a series of troubling censorship allegations across Europe, extensive online restrictions in China, and Iran’s campaign against its critics. Today, we’ll look at the global implications of online censorship in Hong Kong and Australia, a flurry of blasphemy and lèse-majesté arrests, and more.

Hong Kong banned a protest anthem. How will global tech companies respond?

Protestors wear masks with Communist Party of China flag on a hand over their mouths
Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Dec. 22, 2019.

The outlook for free expression in Hong Kong has looked dire in recent years, and a new ruling further cements the city’s decline into deepening repression. Last week, a Hong Kong appeals court granted a government request to ban the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong,” reversing a previous ruling from a lower court. Three appellate judges called the song a “weapon” against national security and argued that an injunction was “necessary” to pressure tech companies to take down recordings and adaptations of the song.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian also claimed the ruling was a “necessary move” to fulfill Hong Kong’s “constitutional responsibility of safeguarding national security and the dignity of the national anthem.”

The implications for free expression in Hong Kong are deeply troubling, but what remains to be seen is what the ruling means for global tech companies — and for their users worldwide. 

As FIRE has regularly documented, local speech restrictions have a tendency to morph into global censorship rules, especially on the internet. And such is the risk here. 

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A day after the injunction’s announcement, “some of the 32 YouTube videos that are explicitly targeted in the injunction were inaccessible for users worldwide, not just in Hong Kong,” according to the MIT Technology Review. It’s unclear, however, whether the owners of the videos took them down or if it was YouTube itself. A later statement from YouTube clarified that though the company is “disappointed” by the ruling, it will comply and remove videos of the song within Hong Kong. 

MIT Technology Review reports that spokespeople from Google, which owns YouTube, and Meta offered little reply other than to suggest that they were reviewing the ruling. Apple and Spotify did not respond to requests for comment. International free expression group Article 19, however, suggested that tech companies previously “enabled the injunction by signalling to Hong Kong authorities that they would comply with censorship orders if they were based on ‘local laws.’” 

A number of factors will determine how far this censorship extends. But even if Hong Kong officials only demand that platforms block the song within the city — which is far from certain — some companies may choose to block it completely rather than go through the trouble of blocking it based on a user’s geographic location (also known as geo-blocking). Or, perhaps, others will want to stay on the good side of authorities in Hong Kong or China by preemptively censoring on a larger scale than Hong Kong’s government can even legally demand, as some companies have chosen to do so in similar situations. 

As the takedowns on YouTube show, the wave of censorship is already underway.

Australia attempts a worldwide takedown on X

Laptop with Australia flag code and digits on the screen

Speaking of local censorship dictating what’s allowed on the global internet, Australia is certainly trying its hand at setting the rules for everyone. Last month, the country’s eSafety Commissioner ordered the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, to remove video showing the stabbing of a bishop in a Sydney church. But the commissioner wasn’t satisfied when X geo-blocked the content within Australia, and instead sought — and initially obtained — a temporary court order from an Australian federal court blocking the video everywhere

The commissioner argued that because Australians could utilize virtual private networks to access the videos despite the local ban, the platform must make them inaccessible to all users regardless of their location. 

FIRE, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, moved to intervene in X’s challenge against the order. After all, the implications for free expression here are profound: The Australian eSafety Commissioner isn’t just attempting to overrule other countries’ legal protections for free expression, but also reinforcing an alarming precedent for authoritarian regimes that would seek to silence their critics on a global scale.

The battle over the video is still ongoing but early this week a federal court refused to extend the order against X, granting a temporary victory for free expression. 

Thailand continues its attack on alleged critics of the crown

Tens of thousands of pro democracy people gather on Ratchapason Road in Bangkok, Thailand on Oct. 25, 2020, to address various social problems, including government work problems, and criticize the monarch
Thousands of pro-democracy people gather on Ratchapason Road in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, which bans insults to the country’s monarchy, has increasingly come under scrutiny from activists seeking reform in the country. Despite those efforts, charges and imprisonment under the law continue and officials are currently seeking to disband the political party pushing for changes to the law. 

Since last month, Thai singer and TV personality Suthipongse ‘Heart’ Thatphithakkul was indicted on lese-majeste and Computer Crimes Act charges for Facebook posts perceived as criticizing the monarchy’s role in COVID vaccine rollouts. And multiple political figures have filed complaints against comedian Udom Taephanich for a joke about the late king’s philosophy of self-sufficiency. A human rights lawyer and a pro-democracy activist were given years-long sentences under the royal insult law, too.

And even more tragic news broke this week with the death of political activist Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom, who suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after a 110-day partial hunger strike. She was awaiting trial on two lese-majeste charges related to her involvement in public polls about the country’s royal family.

As always, it’s a difficult time for blasphemers

It’s tempting to think of blasphemy laws as relics of the past, but prosecutions, death sentences, and mob violence continue today against those accused of offending religious groups and figures. A slew of stories from recent weeks highlight just how serious a threat blasphemy laws and associated mob violence remain to free speech around the world:

  • In Bangladesh, a university student was sentenced to five years in prison for blasphemous comments she posted on Facebook. Similarly, a man was arrested on blasphemy charges for social media posts. 
  • In Lebanon, the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council and a lawmaker in the country issued complaints against comedian and LGBT rights advocate Shaden Fakih on various blasphemy-related allegations over a sketch she posted about prayer. 
  • In Saudi Arabia, police arrested a man for making blasphemous remarks on X.
  • In Pakistan, a court sentenced a man to death for posting blasphemy on social media.
  • In India, a 19-year-old man was beaten to death by a mob earlier this month after allegedly desecrating a Sikh holy text. His father reports that the victim was receiving treatment and suffered from mental illness. 

But not all of the news is bad. In a rare positive development, a Nigerian appeals court reduced the prison sentence of atheist Mubarak Bala from 24 years to 5. It’s a heartening improvement, even if Bala should face no sentence at all. Bala runs a humanist organization in Nigeria and was arrested in 2020 for criticizing Islam on social media. 

European countries restrict speech about Israel

As discussed in last month’s entry, European countries have fared poorly when it comes to speech rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

According to reports, restrictions on speech about the conflict have popped up across Europe, posing serious threats to protesters’ and activists’ speech rights. Amnesty International researcher Julia Hall said hate speech and counterterrorism laws are being “weaponized” to censor speech that would otherwise be protected, though this concern about such deployment of hate speech bans is not new. 

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Additionally, the Brussels-based European Civic Forum found that at least 12 European Union members “have taken disproportionate measures, including the pre-emptive banning of protests based on apparent risk to ‘public order’ and ‘security,’” against pro-Palestinian expression.

Germany even went so far as to ban foreign languages at Berlin pro-Palestinian protests. (And then the University of Texas at San Antonio was soon after accused of enforcing a similar restriction on student protesters in late April. FIRE has since sent two letters to the university about its alleged unconstitutional ban on, among other things, speaking in Arabic, and awaits UTSA’s response.) 

Restrictions on and controversies over speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Stay tuned for future installments of the Free Speech Dispatch for the latest developments. 

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