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Zoom admits it suspended human rights activists’ account as asked by Chinese govt

Three Zoom accounts outside mainland China were suspended after the Chinese government reached out. All these accounts had hosted, or were about to host, events marking the Tiananmen Square massacre and/or the Hong Kong protests.

Hong Kong anti-government demonstrators gather at Liberty Square in Taipei to mark the 31st anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, Taiwan, June 4, 2020. 
Hong Kong anti-government demonstrators gather at Liberty Square in Taipei to mark the 31st anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, Taiwan, June 4, 2020.  (REUTERS)

Zoom meetings on the Hong Kong crisis and the Tiananmen Square massacre were taken down following complaints from the Chinese government.

Zoom admitted that it suspended accounts belonging to human rights activists because the Chinese government asked and has also said that they will block all further meetings that the government considers illegal.

On Thursday, Zoom was accused of suspending the accounts of three activists who held online events related to the Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary or the crisis in Hong Kong. The suspended accounts were offered no explanations as to why they had been shut off Zoom.

After the media reported about it, Zoom admitted later on Thursday that they had been contacted by the Chinese government in May and in early June regarding four Zoom meetings that were being publicised on social media. All these meetings were scheduled to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“The Chinese government informed us that this activity is illegal in China and demanded that Zoom terminate the meetings and host accounts. 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,” Zoom said in a statement.

Zoom’s statement points to the company succumbing to pressure from the Chinese government. The platform did not explain under what law these meetings, which were being hosted outside the Chinese mainland - were considered illegal. It is also not clear as to why Zoom would suspend accounts of Zoom users in the US and Hong Kong. Also, Zoom is not blocked in China.

A Chinese activist who lives in the US, Zhou Fenfsuo’s account was shut down a day after he hosted a Zoom meeting on the Tiananmen Square massacre. For Lee Cheuk-Yan, a pro-democracy campaigner in Hong Kong, his account was shut down just before it was scheduled to host a meeting about the controversial extraditions law that led to mass anti-government protests in the city. Cheuk-Yan also organises yearly Tiananmen vigils.

Cheuk-Yan accused Zoom of ‘participating in political censorship and called their actions shameful. He added that Zoom has now restored his account, but video conferencing platform continues to “kneel before the Communist party”.

Cheuk-Yan has closed his account now and has requested for a refund. “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,’ he said.

Another activist Wang Dan saw his Zoom events being shut down twice. Dan was hosting an event on June 3 to mark the Tiananmen Square anniversary on June 4.

“The Chinese communist party is actively attacking democracy around the world. They have already started to intervene in the social system and way of life in the US. The whole world should be on alert,” Dan said.

“We will continue to seek the support of the law and public opinion, and ask Zoom to take responsibility for its own wrong behaviour,” he added, pointing out that Zoom’s statement does not absolve them from infringing on US citizen’s rights and interests. Zoom is also based in the US.

Since Zoom is not blocked in China, many activists have been using Zoom to reach out to those on the mainland from the outside. Both Dan and Cheuk-Yan’s events were being hosted outside China.

Zoom has said that the platform will no longer allow requests from Beijing to impact anyone outside mainland China, but they are developing ways to block people inside the country. According to Zoom, the new measures will enable them “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,” Zoom added.

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

You can read Zoom’s full statement here -

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 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.”

Recent articles in the media about adverse actions we took toward Lee Cheuk-yan, Wang Dan, and Zhou Fengsuo have some calling into question our commitment to being a platform for an open exchange of ideas and conversations. To be clear, their accounts have been reinstated, and going forward, we will have a new process for handling similar situations.

We will do better as we strive to make Zoom the most secure and trusted way to bring people together.

Key Facts

In May and early June, we were notified by the Chinese government about four large, public June 4th commemoration meetings on Zoom that were being publicized on social media, including meeting details. The Chinese government informed us that this activity is illegal in China and demanded that Zoom terminate the meetings and host accounts.

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.

For one of the meetings, even though the Chinese authorities demanded we take action, we chose to keep the meeting undisturbed because it did not have any participants from mainland China.

For two of the four meetings, 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.

For the fourth situation, the Chinese government showed us a social media invitation for an upcoming meeting referencing a June 4th commemoration event and demanded we take action. The Chinese authorities also notified us of a prior meeting under this account that they considered to be illegal. A U.S.-based Zoom team confirmed the attendance of mainland China participants in that prior meeting.

Zoom does not currently have the ability to remove specific participants from a meeting or block participants from a certain country from joining a meeting. As such, we made the decision to end three of the four meetings and suspended or terminated the host accounts associated with the three meetings.

How We Fell Short

We strive to limit actions taken to only those necessary to comply with local laws. Our response should not have impacted users outside of mainland China. We made two mistakes:

We suspended or terminated the host accounts, one in Hong Kong SAR and two in the U.S. We have reinstated these three host accounts.

We shut down the meetings instead of blocking the participants by country. We currently do not have the capability to block participants by country. We could have anticipated this need. While there would have been significant repercussions, we also could have kept the meetings running.

Actions We’re Taking

Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China.

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.

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.

In addition to connecting people for business, education, healthcare, and other professional endeavors, during this global pandemic Zoom has become the platform people all over the world are choosing for human connection. Zoom is proud of the role we are playing globally and fully supports the open exchange of ideas and conversations that bring communities together to meet, organize, collaborate, and celebrate.

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