Hong Kong Journalism Tech

American Tech Giants Are Slowly Cutting Off Hong Kong Internet Users

That’s the headline on a story I had out at the beginning of last week.

It began:

HONG KONG—Bit by bit, American tech giants are shutting out users in Hong Kong, where moves by authorities to thwart online dissent are shifting the target from individuals to platforms such as Google’s YouTube.

Alphabet-owned Google, San Francisco-based OpenAI and Microsoft have limited access to their artificial-intelligence chatbots in recent months in the global finance and business hub. In OpenAI’s case, the restriction puts Hong Kong and mainland China alongside North Korea, Syria and Iran.

While none of the companies have given reasons, observers say they could be exposed to risk if the chatbots spew out content that violates a national-security law imposed by China nearly three years ago. The law criminalizes many types of criticism of the government and Beijing.

Google, OpenAI and Microsoft declined to comment on why they restricted use in Hong Kong, but said they are working to bring their services to new locations in the future.

Last week, Hong Kong’s Department of Justice sought a court order to block online dissemination of a popular pro-democracy anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong.” The order cited 32 videos on YouTube of the song, which has lyrics that the government says contain a slogan that amounts to advocating secession. It is the first major legal challenge to American tech companies over politically sensitive Hong Kong content.

At a hearing on the request on Monday, national security judge Wilson Chan said the court would resume deliberation on July 21.

The moves add to a slow creep of tech giants treating Hong Kong more like a city in mainland China. Apple has joined with China’s Tencent to filter suspicious websites, with users complaining it temporarily blocked access to legitimate sites such as Twitter rival Mastodon. Disney has declined to offer on its streaming service two episodes of “The Simpsons” that it worried could run afoul of the national-security law, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Some fear that Hong Kong’s largely unfettered internet is being nudged closer to China’s, which is strictly censored by a system known as the Great Firewall and has had no access to foreign social-media services such as Twitter and Facebook since 2009.

“We don’t have the Great Firewall yet, but companies aren’t offering their services,” said Heatherm Huang, co-founder of Hong Kong-based tech company Measurable AI, which analyzes online shopping data for financial firms. “Overall, it’s a sad story,” he said.

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