Zoom promised to be better at censoring global calls at Beijing’s request

“We could have anticipated this need.”
“We could have anticipated this need.”
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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Zoom is the latest technology company to find itself caught between the competing demands of growing its business, upholding the ideals of an open internet, and acceding to censorship requests from China.

In a statement yesterday, the US-based video-conferencing company admitted to shutting down meetings held to commemorate those who died during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in China, and suspending the accounts of two activists and Humanitarian China, a US-based organization of exiled Chinese activists at the direct request of Beijing, who said the meetings were illegal. There are no Chinese laws stipulating that activities related to the June 4 massacre are illegal, but people in China, except Hong Kong, have been banned from holding any vigils or posting words related to the incident online. The accounts were suspended between late May and early June, according to the activists. 

The statement, which gives outsiders a rare glimpse into how Chinese censorship of American firms take place, explains that of the four meetings flagged by Chinese authorities, three were shut down because a significant number of participants were based in mainland China. The fourth, which didn’t have attendees located in China, was left uncensored. 

Particularly noteworthy is Zoom’s evident attempt at threading a fine needle: within a span of a few short paragraphs, it simultaneously chastised governments for censoring their own citizens, while pledging to improve its own censorship mechanisms to better address censorship requests from different states. It sounded a contrite note over its inability to be surgically precise in its censorship, saying it “could have anticipated this need” to “block participants by country,” which would have allowed them to keep the meetings running despite “significant repercussions.” 

While news of Zoom’s censorship has sparked an uproar, some say its actions are par for the course. “This is honestly fairly standard for all the tech companies,” said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “[Zoom was] caught off guard because they were growing so fast and didn’t foresee the need for this kind of technology. So this is just part of their growing pains.” The technology to target specific users based on location will only get more sophisticated because it is hugely lucrative for the advertising industry, he added, and “the same technology can be co-opted and appropriated for censorship reasons.”

Zoom’s compliance with Beijing’s censorship requests raises a number of pressing questions about what users can expect of the service going forward. James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University, is concerned about the safety of Chinese students studying abroad and their families at home. And if other countries make their own censorship demands on Zoom, one could plausibly foresee a messy matrix of different rules for different Zoom users, potentially disrupting the company’s mission of making global communications “frictionless.”

Zoom’s statement “could use some clarification of what they are going to do with features, and of course we have to see what those features look like in action,” said Rui Zhong, a program associate at the Wilson Center, a think tank, in Washingon, DC. “But for Chinese users, this is the latest chapter in a series of tech feature limitations that goes back to the mid 2000s, when Facebook and Google and Twitter were shut out via the firewall.”

In a statement to Quartz, a Zoom representative said the company regrets that “participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations…disrupted,” but that “[i]t is not in Zoom’s power to change the laws of governments opposed to free speech.” The representative added that “for situations where local authorities block communications for participants within their borders, Zoom is developing additional capabilities that protect these conversations for participants outside of those borders.”

China has imposed a virtual “firewall” that forbids its citizens from accessing major foreign websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube since 2006. In reality, some Chinese internet users are still browsing foreign websites with the help of the virtual private networks which can circumvent the firewall, although this practice has become increasingly dangerous and difficult in recent years.

US-based Zhou Fengsuo, president of Humanitarian China, said he was “not satisfied” with Zoom’s statement. Although it acknowledged that the company had made a mistake in suspending the accounts, Zoom “needs to give more information such as which Chinese department had raised the suspension requests to them,” he told Quartz.  

Zhou, a former student leader during the Tiananmen protests, said that he did not wish to see Zoom use a geography-based censorship mechanism because that would amount to the company bowing to Beijing, as well as enhancing China’s firewall and consolidating the segregation of the internet.

Wang Dan, another US-based former Tiananmen student leader who also had his account temporarily suspended, told Quartz that he has hired a lawyer and is considering taking legal action against Zoom. Lee Cheuk-yan, a Hong Kong politician who organizes the city’s annual June 4 candlelight vigil, is the second individual activist who saw his account suspended. All three accounts have been reinstated after Zoom realized they were based in Hong Kong and the US, according to the statement.

Zoom is certainly not the first American tech company to find itself in such a situation. Apple, for example, does significant business in China, but is at the same time expected to preach Western standards on issues like freedom of speech. Recently, it came under fire for removing a Hong Kong protest app from its app store. Microsoft-owned Skype, before it was completely removed from app stores in China in 2017, also had a China-only version of its software that censored a specific list of words

At the core of the issue is whether those companies should uphold their American values even if that means they giving up on the lucrative China market, as Google did, or continue their operations in the country by compromising certain practices such as adopting advanced censorship systems. Google, which initially accommodated Chinese censorship requests in 2006 in order to operate there, eventually decided to shutter its search product in China in 2010 after it detected attempts from China to hack into Gmail accounts, including those of human-rights activists. A plan to re-enter the market with a censored version of its search engine was scrapped last year.

Zhou said he agrees with the path that Google chose when faced with China’s restrictions, but also noted that as it is difficult for a single American company to stand up to Beijing, the US government should help, for example, with “countermeasures to force China to open up its internet.”