Zoom has admitted that they have shut down the accounts of three activists. The accounts were shut down upon request of the Chinese government. But not all of the accounts that were shut down were located on the Chinese mainland, so they shouldn’t have been shut down. Zoom now states that they will no longer suspend hosts or lock people from meetings if they are not located in mainland China. Zoom has struggled with its popularity during lockdown, and this is yet another issue the company has to face.
In May and early June, the Chinese government asked Zoom to shut down meetings that were held by human rights activists. The online meetings were held for the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests and for the issues in Hong Kong. The activists had been promoting the meetings on social media. But the Chinese government forbids citizens from observing the protests, so they asked the company to shut down the meetings.
“The Chinese government informed us that this activity is illegal in China and demanded that Zoom terminate the meetings and host accounts,” it said. At the time of the shutdowns, the meeting hosts did not get an explanation as to why their meetings were shut down.
The company offered an explanation about the shutdowns in a blog post. When the Chinese government requested the shutdowns, the company saw that three of the four meetings that were flagged were attended be people in mainland China. So Zoom ended these meetings and shut down the accounts hosting them.
Later, Zoom found out that not all of the hosts were actually located on mainland China. Two accounts were hosting from the US and another was hosting from the special administrative region Hong Kong.
The company explained that they shouldn’t have shut down the meetings entirely, but that they don’t have the option to only block out the attendees in mainland China. Zoom is building technology that can remove people attending from a specific country, so that this problem doesn’t have to occur again.
“We are improving our global policy to respond to these types of requests. We will outline this policy as part of our transparency report, to be published by June 30, 2020,” the company said.
The host from Hong Kong has decided to close his Zoom account. He accused the company of political censorship. “They have restored my account but Zoom continues to kneel before the Communist party,” he said.
The situation does raise the question how much influence China has on an American company like Zoom. China has blocked many Western social media platforms, like YouTube and Facebook. Zoom was only blocked for a little while, but that was done to open up the market for Chinese video conferencing platforms. Activists use the platform to reach people on mainland China. US lawmakers have now asked Zoom to “pick a side: American principles and free-speech, or short-term global profits and censorship”.
To provide extra clarity, Zoom ensured that they “did not provide any user information or meeting content to the Chinese government. We do not have a backdoor that allows someone to enter a meeting without being visible.” So even though they did give in to Chinese demands, that doesn’t mean that they can get their hands on information about the activists.