Zoom Just Totally Caved In to China on Censorship

The U.S.-based videoconferencing company is adding a new feature that will help Beijing target Chinese users.
June 12, 2020, 11:54am
Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)​​
Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

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Zoom says it wants oppressive regimes to end online censorship, but in the same breath says it’s willing to help the Chinese government continue to oppress its citizens.

Hours after it was revealed that Zoom had shut down the accounts of three Chinese dissidents at the behest of the Chinese government, the company posted an update on its website describing details of a new tool it was building to better comply with Beijing ‘s demands.

Zoom announced late on Thursday that it would be building a new feature into its service that will allow it to target and ban any user inside China, closing what was a glaring hole in the Chinese government’s massive online censorship system known as the Great Firewall.

But the company begins its update by criticizing authoritarian governments for their oppressive censorship:

“We hope that one day, governments who build barriers to disconnect their people from the world and each other will recognize that they are acting against their own interests, as well as the rights of their citizens and all humanity,” the blog post said.

But just paragraphs later, Zoom announced a new service that will make such censorship much easier for the authorities in Beijing.

“Zoom is developing technology over the next several days that will enable us to remove or block at the participant level based on geography. This will enable us to comply with requests from local authorities when they determine activity on our platform is illegal within their borders,” the company said in a blog post.

When asked how it reconciled these two positions, the company did not immediately respond.

READ: Zoom shut down a Chinese dissident's account after he held a Tiananmen Square memorial

Zoom is based in Silicon Valley, but its software and engineering teams are based predominantly in China, where it also has servers that are used for its video conferencing service.

Banning accounts based on geography means that the Chinese government will be able to direct Zoom to impose blanket bans on all Chinese users if desired.

Zoom’s statement is a rare admission by a U.S. company about the process of censoring content for the Chinese government.

The company admitted this week that it shut down the accounts of three Chinese dissidents based outside of China: Zhou Fengsuo and Wang Dan, who are based in the U.S., and Hong Kong politician Lee Cheuk Yan. All three were attempting to hold online memorials to the Tiananmen Square massacre last week.

The accounts were closed, Zoom confirmed Thursday night after it was “notified by the Chinese government about four large, public June 4th commemoration meetings on Zoom.”

In another jaw-dropping admission, the company admitted that “a U.S.-based Zoom team reviewed the meeting metadata (such as IP addresses) while the meeting was in progress, and confirmed a significant number of mainland China participants.”

The company said it did not share any information about its users with the Chinese government, but has not said if the accounts of the Chinese users it identified have been shut down permanently. Zhou, who was a student leader during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and organized one of the online memorial events, told VICE News that he was “gravely concerned” about the fate of those account holders.

READ: Here's how China is hunting down coronavirus critics

Dan, who was a Tiananmen student leader during the 1989 massacre, told Quartz that he has hired a lawyer and is considering taking legal action against Zoom.

Zoom admitted it had made a mistake in shutting down accounts based outside of China, but said the mistake happened because it does not yet have the ability to block individual accounts rather than an entire meeting.

The Chinese government tightly controls what services are allowed to operate inside the country and many U.S. companies have had to comply with Chinese rules in order to continue to operate in what is a hugely lucrative market.

Just this week Apple was forced to remove a number of podcast apps from its App Store because of Chinese government pressure.

Zoom was seen as an outlier, because it is commercially available in China and allows users there to directly connect with people around the globe. But this major loophole in its Great Firewall is now set to be closed.

“Zoom wants to impose a wall in Chinese users,” Zhou said, “this makes Zoom complicit in China’s censorship and surveillance on Chinese people.”

Cover: Facade with sign at headquarters of videoconferencing, remote work, and webinar technology company Zoom (ZM) in the Silicon Valley, San Jose, California, March 28, 2020. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)