Video conferencing software company Zoom has admitted that it suspended the accounts of users in the United States and Hong Kong at the request of the Chinese government, and that it intends to add the ability to block or remove meeting participants from mainland China.
Zoom last week suspended the accounts of three human rights activists, Lee Cheuk-yan, Wang Dan, and Zhou Fengsuo, who used the service to hold online discussions about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Two of these accounts were based in Hong Kong, and one in the U.S.
The company says it suspended the accounts at the request of the Chinese government, though it’s not clear what laws were being broken by the hosts, who do not reside in mainland China.
In a blog post, Zoom said it suspended the users after “[t]he Chinese government informed us that this activity is illegal in China and demanded that Zoom terminate the meetings and host accounts,” which it admitted “have some calling into question our commitment to being a platform for an open exchange of ideas and conversations.”
Zoom has now reinstated the three users’ accounts, but it effectively denied them the opportunity to speak to other pro-democracy organizers during a crucial period. Zoom said it took this action because it does not have the ability to block meeting participants by country, so when it saw some users from mainland China were in the meetings, it had to end them.
Zoom said it 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.
“Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China,” the company said. But this is unlikely to be comforting to the activists within mainland China or those in Hong Kong who are looking for ways to communicate with each other or those outside the country safely.
One of the affected activists, Lee Cheuk-yan who is based in Hong Kong, expressed his dismay at the company’s actions to the Guardian. “They have restored my account but Zoom continues to kneel before the Communist party,” he said. “My purpose on opening Zoom is to reach out to mainland Chinese, breaking the censorship of the Chinese Communist party. With this policy, it defeats my original purpose.”
On Friday, more than a dozen bipartisan lawmakers, led by senators Marco Rubio and Ron Wyden, sent a letter to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan asking for further details of how many accounts, if any, the company has also closed that were located outside of the Chinese government’s authority. The lawmakers also addressed concern over if Zoom shares user data with the Chinese government. They concluded the letter by saying Zoom “must be transparent and not allow foreign governments… to dictate the terms of usage.”
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