YouTube should not be let off the hook for censorship

The writer says Hong Kong can consider calling for a territory-wide advertising boycott on YouTube for its actions.


April 25, 2022

HONG KONG – Since its launch in 2005, YouTube, an American video-sharing social media platform, has prided itself on its slogan “Broadcast Yourself”, a noble message of promoting personal freedom of expression. Indeed, the company has clear “Community Guidelines” of removing only content that contains misinformation, copyright infringement, defamation, pornography, animal abuse, shock videos, hate speech and material encouraging criminal conduct.

But the YouTube online video platform of Hong Kong chief executive candidate John Lee Ka-chiu’s campaign channel contains none of those breaches of its Community Guidelines. It was simply an election platform not dissimilar to other elections such as the current French presidential election. Hence its removal on April 20 by YouTube is not justifiable but serves only to demonstrate American hypocrisy and double standards. For a social media so focused on “democratization of speech”, this is a travesty of justice!! It certainly looks more like a bullying tactic at the behest of the US government to meddle in the internal affairs of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Indeed, the US government is believed to have overreached the limits of its own sanctions program being administered by its Department of the Treasury to deter donations to Lee’s election campaign fund. This is despite YouTube claiming the removal was done in compliance with US sanctions law.

But even this fig-leaf excuse does not hold any water as the law applies only to economic sanctions. In fact, removing Lee’s video platform goes against the US Constitution, whose First Amendment seeks “to protect speech, religion, press, assembly and the right to petition”. Yet YouTube did not even give Lee an opportunity to defend himself, thereby depriving him of his right to petition as guaranteed under the First Amendment! Such hypocrisy!

From this case, the world is given notice that only those who support the US would be entitled to freedom of speech and to be alert to its dangerous precedent in all future elections. For example, they can in the future remove all election platforms of anti-US candidates, thereby seriously handicapping their outreach to potential supporters in their countries.

But this is nothing fundamentally new with regard to America’s clandestine interference in other countries’ elections. The only difference this time is the employment of the massive YouTube audience for political ends.

My initial thought is that all these foreign social media should be subject to a licensing system, with provisions of penalties such as temporary suspension of service and heavy fines for political discriminatory acts

Thus it is most appropriate that the HKSAR government promptly issued a strong statement condemning YouTube’s removal of Lee’s election platform, expressing Hong Kong people’s “extreme outrage”. It called on all sectors of society to join hands in opposing foreign interference in general, and YouTube’s arbitrary action in particular, over Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

YouTube’s move will have little effect on the outcome of the upcoming chief executive election; it simply exposes Washington’s frustrations over its failed “color revolution” attempt in the 2019 riots. However, YouTube should not be let off the hook for its mischievous act. So, what can be done? Some suggested that Hong Kong can apply to the central government to trigger the Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law to block YouTube access in Hong Kong. Indeed, YouTube is blocked in many countries for good reasons, such as in Thailand in April 2007 over a video said to be insulting to the Thai king. In hindsight, China was absolutely correct in banning these US social media, which can easily become a security risk as its massive number of subscribers can be easily manipulated to become hostile to Hong Kong and our motherland.

However, at this stage, I would not recommend such a drastic move as YouTube does provide a good source of free entertainment and knowledge to many Hong Kong citizens on a daily basis. But we should now make every effort to promote its replacement in Hong Kong by other popular video-sharing social media platforms.

In the meantime, what we can consider is to call for a territory-wide advertising boycott on YouTube. Revenue from advertisements is the main source of income for YouTube, so it is best to hit it where it hurts. It can start with all government and public institutions boycotting all advertisements on YouTube. There is a precedent in the United Kingdom, when its government, in March 2017, pulled its advertising campaigns from YouTube, after reports that its ads had appeared on videos containing extremist content. At that time, The Guardian newspaper, as well as other major British and US brands, similarly suspended their advertising on YouTube in response to the boycott appeal. Hong Kong can do the same by discouraging all Hong Kong and mainland companies from placing ads on YouTube. Hong Kong really should show its color to YouTube for its attempt to humiliate us! As to those companies that continue to place ads on YouTube, they and their brands could be exposed in a blacklist for all consumers to note. This was a proven tactic on Apple Daily at the time of the 2019 riots, when its advertisers’ names were exposed and hence their advertisement revenue dwindled, leading to its heavy economic losses.

On the other hand, we should indeed thank YouTube for reminding us to ensure that in the drafting of legislation according to Article 23 of the Basic Law, we should take this case into serious consideration by ensuring there is a robust law and penalty to deal with this kind of political meddling. My initial thought is that all these foreign social media should be subject to a licensing system, with provisions of penalties such as temporary suspension of service and heavy fines for political discriminatory acts.

With 150 political and business heavyweights of Hong Kong’s elitists lined up to join Lee’s election campaign as advisers, this is a clear demonstration of solidarity across the community to support Lee as the next chief executive of the HKSAR. Any efforts by the US and other Western governments to meddle in our election are doomed to fail!

The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space, and a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

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