Zoom to Introduce New Censorship Features After Doing China’s Bidding

News and Analysis

If you are into discussing private matters or sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square tragedy over video calls, don’t use Zoom for that. The service announced a new feature that would make it easier to ban people from the desired country at their government’s request.

On June 11th, Zoom published a post explaining its actions against users who took part in four large commemoration online meetings dedicated to the Tiananmen Square tragedy. According to the post, Chinese authorities have contacted the company asking to terminate the meetings and accounts that hosted them, since this kind of event is outlawed in the country. Zoom obliged by shutting three out of four meetings. The last one didn’t have any participants from mainland China so there was nothing illegal going on and the meeting was left undisturbed.

The post also mentions three host accounts that have been blocked at China’s request. It turned out that two of those were from the U.S. and one from Hong Kong SAR, so all three have been reinstated as of the announcement.

No personal information was handed over to the authorities, Zoom claimed:

We 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.”

Importantly, the company claims that meetings had to be terminated because there was no way to ban users from specific geographics. This is something Zoom is going to change.

“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; however, we will also be able to protect these conversations for participants outside of those borders where the activity is allowed,” the announcement reads.

According to the post, two mistakes Zoom admitted were banning accounts from outside China and shutting down entire meetings instead of blocking only the Chinese participants. Foreign accounts have been restored and the geo-based ban feature is reportedly underway, therefore there should be no more problems left to solve.

Still, it looks like the company can’t exactly decide between human rights and not getting in the way of local regimes.

“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 first paragraph of the announcement reads, “The reality is Zoom operates in more than 80 countries and continues to expand, which requires compliance with local laws even as Zoom seeks to promote the open exchange of ideas.”

Considering the blockings and the new features promised, compliance with local laws seems to be the priority. In fairness, Zoom is just one of many U.S. companies that have to make concessions to be allowed into China’s huge market. Notably, while the company is headquartered in California, a large part of its team is based in China.

One of the users who got their accounts blocked was Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader at the Tiananmen protests in 1989 and the founder of the U.S. non-profit organization Humanitarian China. Zhou told Vice that he chose Zoom because it is available to users in China, which means the participants of the commemorative meeting didn’t have to circumvent the Great Firewall.

“It was the first time that such a comprehensive representation of Tiananmen legacy could participate in the same conference because there was no geographic separation,” Zhou said referring to the Zoom meeting he held on June 4th.

On June 12th, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan asking to explain which particular laws the company was following when suspending U.S.-based activists.

Earlier, Zoom faced criticism about its approach to encrypting users’ communications. After being called out for not having end-to-end encryption, the company promised to ramp up its security by actually introducing the feature. The recently found catch is that only paid users’ communication will be encrypted end-to-end. The company’s CEO told Bloomberg that free users will be left out because the company wants to “work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose.”

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