- Zoom on Thursday admitted that it closed user accounts and meetings meant to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, after being asked by the Chinese government.
- It announced a new policy, to continue to enforce bans requested by China, but only for users physically inside the country, as opposed to earlier bans which had affected people elsewhere.
- Tech companies, like Facebook and Google, have long complied with authoritarian governments’ requests to take down politically sensitive content.
- Academics and activists warn that Zoom’s capitulation to China could threaten its foreign user base, and say it raises safety concerns for Chinese people abroad.
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Zoom this week admitted to deactivating user accounts and canceling meetings at the Chinese government’s behest – demonstrating clearly the price tech companies often pay to operate in authoritarian states.
Earlier this week Zoom attracted widespread criticism for suspending the accounts of US-based human-rights campaigners, and shutting and shut down meetings commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
China has long written the event out of its history books, and routinely bans discussion of it.
The company has since introduced a new policy, saying it will “not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China” (emphasis ours).
Instead it says it will censor individual users by geography. If the Chinese government asks Zoom to censor people again, the company will still do it, but only to those inside the country.
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Tech companies operating in China are known to censor user content either at the Communist Party’s behest, or proactively to avoid upsetting the government and risking retribution.
Some Chinese companies, such as WeChat and Weibo, have also handed over private user data to Chinese law enforcement in the past.
The Zoom bans brought to light once more the trade-offs of operating a tech company in authoritarian states with norms far removed from those of the US.
Tech’s uneasy relationship with authoritarians
Censoring content to comply with hardline governments isn’t a new for tech companies.
Earlier this year Facebook promised to take down “significantly more content” that the Vietnamese government considered “anti-state.”
It came after the country took Facebook’s local servers offline, which dramatically decreased people’s access to the platform.
Sources at Facebook told Reuters that it does not usually comply with government requests to censor content, but having its servers taken down had forced its hand.
Moderators at TikTok – owned by the Chinese company ByteDance – have in the past also been instructed to censor posts and users mentioning politically-sensitive topics in China, including Tiananmen Square and the oppression of the Uighur people in Xinjiang province.
Last November, TikTok was forced to issue a public apology to Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old American teenager whose account it suspended after she posted viral videos condemning China’s oppression of Uighurs. (TikTok insisted at the time that Aziz was suspended for featuring Osama bin Laden’s face in a previous video, rather than for criticizing China.)
Two years ago, Google was also found to be secretly planning to launch a censored search engine in China. The plan, known as Project Dragonfly, was axed in July 2019 after widespread protests from within and outside the company.
Other authoritarian states, like Turkey and Venezuela, also frequently impose internet blackouts to prevent people from organizing protests or spreading unwelcome news about the state.
‘Are you trying to curry favor with the Chinese Communist Party?’
Critics have long suspected Zoom’s links with China.
After a report from in April from Citizen Lab, Zoom admitted that it had been routing some calls via Chinese servers, potentially giving the authorities a way to demand access to the data.
It claimed this was due to a capacity issue, and was a mistake that would not be repeated.
In a Thursday letter to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan addressing the censorship of the Tiananmen Square activists, US Senator Josh Hawley asked: “Are you trying to curry favor with the Chinese Communist Party?”
Zoom’s exact relationship with China is not clear: while it is headquartered in California, its software appears to be developed in China, according to Citizen Lab.
It also employs more than 700 employees in China, including many of its product developers and researchers, according to its latest SEC filing.
It’s also not clear whether Zoom has shared user data with China in the past – this could include account details, billing address, or even the content of meetings.
On Thursday it did not share data related to the Tiananmen Square calls. Two members of the House of Representatives wrote to Zoom Thursday asking it to clarifying its data-sharing relationship with China, but the company has not yet responded.
The size of Zoom’s user base in China is also not clear: According to its Fiscal 2020 report from March, the Asia-Pacific region has made up just 8% of the company’s revenue since 2018. (The Americas, meanwhile, generate more than 80%.)
Zoom’s user numbers in China have skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, however, with 5.4 million new downloads of its mobile app from Apple’s China store since 2020 alone, Reuters reported. Many people in other countries have also downloaded Zoom during the pandemic as countries impose lockdown measures.
‘A really dumb move’
News of Zoom’s censorship has also unnerved academics and activists, given its growing use in university and school classrooms.
“Zoom is now the primary platform for on-line university teaching in the US,” tweeted James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University, on Thursday.
“US universities cannot contract with an entity that censors or potentially censors our faculty or student’s content,” he said.
“More seriously, this raises more questions about safety of Chinese students even in US, and their families at home.”
“This is a really dumb move on Zoom’s part, threatening much of the company’s remarkable growth over the past months. They are not the only company supplying meeting software.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, also tweeted Friday: “Does @zoom_us really think that this won’t come back to bite it?”
“#China #Tiananmen episode is appalling on many levels, but capitulation also doesn’t get you safety,” she added. “It gets you more demands for capitulation!”