Today United States Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) signed a joint letter with support from Congress Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Mike Gallagher (R-WI), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) to Blizzard-Activision CEO Bobby Kotick urging the company to reverse its decision to penalize pro-Hearthstone player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai for his comments in support of Hong Kong. The letter criticizes Blizzard’s recent actions, stating that the penalty “is particularly concerning in light of the Chinese government’s growing appetite for pressuring American businesses to help stifle free speech.”
As China amplifies its campaign of intimidation, you and your company must decide whether to look beyond the bottom line and promote American values.
“Activision Blizzard benefits from China’s growing market for esports, along with an investment from Tencent, one of China’s largest technology firms,” continues the letter, dated October 18th. “As you and your company are no doubt aware, the Chinese government uses the size and strength of its economy to suppress opinions with which it disagrees.”
Since Blizzard’s initial decision to ban the pro-Hearthstone player for his on-stream call to “Liberate Hong Kong,” along with the event’s casters, the company has since modified the penalty in an official statement, reducing the ban from competitive play to six months from one year and returning Chung Ng Wai’s prize money. According to their official statement, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack insists that their decision is not a matter of Chinese influence, and that the aim is to keep event broadcasts “focused on the game and […] not a platform for divisive social or political views” of any kind.
“As China amplifies its campaign of intimidation, you and your company must decide whether to look beyond the bottom line and promote American values—like freedom of speech and thought—or to give in to Beijing’s demands in order to preserve market access,” the bipartisan letter to Kotick reads. “We urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider your decision with respect to Mr. Chung. You have the opportunity to reverse course. We urge you to take it.”
Despite the insistence from Blizzard that the Chinese government is not an influencing factor in their recent decisions to punish pro-players for issuing political comments, which have expanded to include a retroactive suspension of collegiate Hearthstone players from American University who held up a sign reading “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz” during an official competition stream, are being met with extreme displeasure and doubt from fans of Blizzard’s franchises, who have initiated a #boycottblizzard social media movement.
In an effort to press the issue beyond the bounds of “clicktivism,” digital rights group Fight For The Future is organizing a protest event coinciding with this year’s BlizzCon, which begins on November 1st. Protestors are asked to bring umbrellas, a symbol of resistance in Hong Kong, or to cosplay to demonstrate outside the Anaheim Convention Center. This week, an event at Nintendo’s New York celebrating the Switch launch of Overwatch was cancelled by Blizzard without official comment.
Like the Congressional letter today, Fight For The Future is also interested in seeing Blizzard rescind its recent penalties for players’ pro-Hong Kong statements and are working towards encouraging an environment where the rights to free speech are upheld in the gaming industry at large.
I’ve seen a lot of Internet outrage in my time. This feels different.
Deputy Director of Fight For The Future Evan Greer responded to the letter from United States Representatives by saying that companies should positively serve communities and humanity as a whole, without pressure from world governments. “Decisions about how to moderate online content are some of the most important decisions that humans are making right now. Full stop. Companies should make content moderation decisions based on the needs of their community and humanity as a whole, not based on pressure from governments, whether it’s the US, China, or the UK.”
People are setting aside their differences and working together to organize protests at BlizzCon, reach out to gaming companies and demand that they take a stand for free expression, and put pressure on companies generally to not cave to authoritarian demands.
Greer adds: “Blizzard is trying to hide the fact that they’re blatantly acting as censors on behalf of a government by claiming they just have a blanket ban on all ‘political’ speech. That’s an absurd way to do content moderation. How you define what speech is ‘political’ and what speech is okay is a highly political decision in and of itself.”
United States Representatives also issued a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, expressing “strong concern” over the decision to remove specific apps from their App Store, including a police activity tracking app called HKMapLive used by active protesters and protest supporters in Hong Kong and apps that benefit oppressed Uyghur and Tibetan minorities. Apple states that it removed the app due to concerns that it was used to “victimize individuals and property.”
Protests have been ongoing in Hong Kong since June, following a proposed law that would allow the extradition of people suspected of crimes to mainland China for trial. Many feel this proposed law undermines the judicial independence of the former British colony of Hong Kong that was granted during the 1997 passing of the territory to China. The bill was withdrawn in September, but alleged incidents of police brutality against the protestors remain high and tensions show few signs of dying down.