Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Google’s absurd stance on right to produce wrong anthem results

  • In its row with the Hong Kong government, the search giant needs to prioritise factual accuracy over American political correctness

Let’s do a thought experiment, which I will call: what would Google do? The island of Taiwan has its own “national” anthem, even though it is considered part of China so far as the mainland is concerned. The anthem’s first line is “the three principles of the people”, which was first enunciated by Sun Yat-sen himself, the founder of modern China.

Now, suppose you search on Google “Taiwan’s national anthem” or “the three principles of the people & Taiwan”, and the top results keep yielding the “March of the Volunteers”, which is the national anthem of China, and obviously, also that of Hong Kong.

Do you think the government of Taiwan would complain? Or would it just say, hey, it’s Google’s free speech right, even if the information is wrong?

But what would Google’s response be if Taiwan did complain? It could be, I suppose, like what it told the Hong Kong government after the latter complained that a protest song from the 2019 riots kept coming up in place of the Chinese national anthem.

Hong Kong security chief slams Google for refusing to fix anthem search results

Perhaps it would respond with the following. “Google handles billions of search queries every day, so we build ranking systems to automatically surface relevant, high quality, and helpful information. We do not manually manipulate organic web listings to determine the ranking of a specific page,” a spokesman said.

“In keeping with our commitment to maximise access to information, we do not remove web results except for specific reasons outlined in our global policy documentation.”

Basically, the search giant said there was nothing it could or would do, which was in fact, the answer it gave to the Hong Kong government last week.

Over the years, Google seems to be rather partial to the protest anthem. In 2019, at the height of the riots, YouTube, which is owned by Google, pulled a spoof of the protest anthem that made the song sound supportive of local police and disparaging of the anti-government movement, the opposite of the original lyrics.

Back then, it didn’t say, “In keeping with our commitment to maximise access to information blah blah blah …”

Besides national dignity, there are very good reasons that Chinese and Hong Kong authorities would want accurate search results. There have been repeated mix-ups at several international sporting events, where the protest song was played instead of the national anthem. Whatever actually caused the mistake at those events, it’s at least conceivable that overseas sports officials did a prior Google search and ended up mistaking the protest song for the national anthem.

‘Google Hong Kong should answer to lawmakers for anthem search results’

In standing up to the Hong Kong and central governments and insisting on its right to provide false information, Google has earned kudos from politicians and the press in the United States.

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal headlined with “Google takes a stand over Hong Kong’s protest anthem – The company isn’t bowing to demands to favour China’s national anthem instead.” According to the editorial leader, the Hong Kong government shouldn’t even complain about it because that was “sounding and acting so much like China”.

Humm, how about accuracy? How would the paper’s editorialists react if Google searches kept yielding a spoof of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in place of the American national anthem, and the search giant said there was nothing they could do about it?

In fact, many US news reports make it sound like Chinese authorities want Google to pull the protest song from its search results when the Chinese’s actual request was to make sure their national anthem showed up when people searched for it.

I have to say, though, that it was perfectly idiotic of Deputy Chief Secretary for Administration Warner Cheuk Wing-hing to threaten to pull all adverts from Google. Parent Alphabet Inc earned almost US$80 billion last year. The city’s ad cancellations would really hit its bottom line!

As a matter of principle for Google, how about placing factual accuracy above American political correctness? Just a thought.