HONG KONG: Google said Thursday it does not manipulate search results, after Hong Kong’s government said the tech giant had refused its demand to bury a popular protest song.
The controversy began after it emerged that links to the pro-democracy song “Glory to Hong Kong” appeared ahead of China’s official “March of the Volunteers” when people searched for the city’s anthem.
The song was accidentally played for Hong Kong athletes at two international sports events last month, prompting the demand from the Chinese city to delist it from search results.
“Google handles billions of search queries every day, so we build ranking systems to automatically surface relevant, high quality, and helpful information,” the tech giant told AFP in response to a query about the anthem request.
“We do not manually manipulate organic web listings to determine the ranking of a specific page,” it said in a statement.
Hong Kong’s security chief Chris Tang said Monday that Google had refused the city government’s request. He described the company’s explanation — that results were based on algorithms — as “evasive” and “inconceivable”.
Hong Kong leader John Lee said this week that Google had a “moral obligation” to respect a country’s national anthem, while the Chinese foreign ministry said internet companies “have a duty to deliver correct information to the public”.
Google told AFP it was in contact with Hong Kong’s government to explain “how our platforms and removal policies work”.
“We do not remove web results except for specific reasons outlined in our global policy documentation.”
Both Tang and Lee have argued that Google search results can be manipulated, citing the placement of ads and the deletion of certain results to comply with privacy laws in the European Union.
Police have been asked to investigate whether the anthem mix-up in South Korea was a violation of the city’s national security law, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 to crush dissent after democracy protests.
Ronny Tong, a government adviser and lawyer, told local radio on Thursday that Google may be committing the national security crime of “assisting secession”.
Hong Kong-based data scientist Wong Ho-wa told AFP that the government’s demands could be met in theory “if changes are forcibly made” but it would be extremely complicated to modify the whole search engine structure.
“Google would have to unindex certain search results but new content can be supplemented by third parties relentlessly,” Wong said.
The more Hong Kong officials brought up the issue, Wong added, the higher the protest song would go in search results.
Local journalists in Hong Kong have made a similar connection, with one asking Lee on Wednesday whether his administration was falling victim to the “Streisand effect” by which attempts to censor or hide something in fact draw more attention to the issue.
“We will send our letters to Google again, to pursue this matter,” Lee replied.
Google’s search engine is banned in mainland China but is freely accessible in Hong Kong, where the firm also has an office.
It was among tech companies that suspended cooperation with Hong Kong police on data requests after the security law came into effect.
This year, YouTube — a Google subsidiary — terminated Lee’s channel, citing US sanctions.
Lee was among officials sanctioned by the United States in 2020 for their role in curtailing civil liberties in Hong Kong.