The Hong Kong government requested that Google remove 183 items between July and December 2022 – mostly from YouTube – with the US tech giant denying almost half of the requests, according to its latest transparency report.

Google . File photo: Chien Chih-Hung/Taiwan Presidential Office, via Flickr.

In total during 2022, the government requested that Google remove 330 items, among which 57 were related to national security. It represented the highest year-on-year increase compared to other categories which related to issues such as impersonation, privacy and security. In 2021, Hong Kong requested that Google remove 116 items in all, with just six related to national security.

Cartoon sheep book

Police sent two requests to Google asking them to remove four items relating to a series of children’s books entitled Sheep Village. They included a Google-hosted website and three Google Drive folder URLs, the transparency report revealed. Google said it did not take action on its cloud-based services but, as of January 2023, content no longer appeared on the Google site.

Steve Li
Steve Li, senior superintendent of the Police National Security Department, at a press conference explaining allegedly seditious children’s books. File Photo: Hong Kong Police, via Facebook screenshot.

The series of children books were published by the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists in 2020 and 2021. Five union members were arrested and convicted of conspiracy to print, publish, distribute and display three books with seditious intent under the the colonial-era sedition law. Two of them applied for a permission to appeal in September 2022.

In all, 48.1 per cent of police takedown requests saw no action taken by Google, while nearly 30 per cent were complied with. Google stated that there were many reasons why they may not remove a specific item. It gave examples such as unclear requests, or that the content was already removed by the author. It added that not all takedown requests included court orders demanding content removal.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, Google did not say whether any of the 55 national security takedown requests were complied with. It said they had stopped producing information in response to Hong Kong government requests for user data on July 1, 2020, a day after the national security law came into effect.

Gov’t requests increase

Google has published transparency reports since 2011, revealing government requests around the world. Since 2019, requests from the Hong Kong government rose rapidly, from 57 items in 2019, 122 in 2020 to 330 last year.

Police are now the main source of requests. In 2022, nearly 71 per cent of items were requested by the Force.

Doxxing typing computer keyboard
Photo: Rachel Johnson, via Flickr.

Google has found itself under pressure in recent years in Hong Kong. In December 2022, the city’s security chief said that Google had refused a government request to adjust search results to ensure China’s national anthem appeared prominently when requested, rather than a pro-democracy protest song. The government eventually worked on Search Engine Optimisation to improve the results.

Previously, Google revealed details of three occasions where it complied with requests from Hong Kong police to remove content from its platforms during the first half of 2021, including cases involving a Gmail account, a Google Drive account and a Blogger account.

According to Facebook’s Transparency Report, Meta received 201 legal requests from Hong Kong between July and December 2020. The company complied with none of the requests.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.