Zoom has found a way to outsource censorship of its video calls in China

Mounting concerns.
Mounting concerns.
Image: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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The popular video-conferencing company Zoom may have hit upon a way to make sure its pandemic-fueled popularity in the US isn’t dented by the competing demand of complying with Beijing’s online censorship requirements—a few degrees of separation.

The San Jose, Calif.-based company, founded by Chinese-American entrepreneur Eric Yuan, on Monday (August 3) said it will stop selling its services directly to mainland China-based users, and instead offer its video call services via partner platforms in the country. Previously, the company had been offering direct corporate accounts, as well as working with partners.

“We are now shifting to a partner-only model with Zoom technology embedded in partner offerings, which will provide better local support to users in mainland China,” the company said in a statement. The decision will take effect from Aug. 23, after which users can still join Zoom meetings as participants but only via platforms operated by Zoom partners Bizconf Communications, Suirui Zhumu Video Conference and Systec Umeet.

While the company says the move will serve Chinese users better, the decision appears to be a new way for it to insulate itself as platforms with operations in both the US and China face harsher scrutiny in both countries. A number of US and Chinese tech companies are scrambling to find ways to walk the tightrope between Washington and Beijing, most prominently Beijing-based ByteDance, which faces the choice of selling off, TikTok, its best-known overseas product, or having it banned in the US.

In June, Zoom was accused of bowing to China for shutting down meetings related to Tiananmen protests, including suspending the accounts of overseas Chinese dissidents at Beijing’s request, prompting many to  question whether it’s safe to use the platform, including professors at US universities where it’s become the go-to platform for online teaching.  The company didn’t offer the most reassuring response—it said it had to comply with “local laws” in China and that it would fine-tune its technology to allow it to censor users based on their geography in future. Last week, US senators Josh Hawley and Richard Blumenthal wrote a letter urging the justice department to investigate Zoom and TikTok over privacy and censorship concerns.

Earlier this year Zoom stopped offering free accounts in China or allowing free users to host meetings on the platform, which had become a window for users in China to connect with people overseas—including on taboo topics.

By moving to offering its technology only through platforms operated by third parties, Zoom will be able to hand off to these partners the messy business of making sure users in China aren’t discussing topics the Communist Party doesn’t want them to. Zoom can then argue that it is not really responsible for censorship of users in China, while maintaining operations and generating revenues there.

Zoom has no plans to close its offices and data centers in China yet, and users in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau will continue to have similar access to the video-conferencing platform as people overseas, according to a source familiar with the strategy.