Zoom has enjoyed unprecedented growth in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, rising to stardom as it became the center of teleconferencing and virtual interactions. However, its rise is facing challenges ranging from privacy issues to Chinese government’s interference.
On Thursday, the company issued a statement acknowledging that it was pressured by the Chinese government to shut down an event commemorating the 31st anniversary of the 1989, June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Zoom acknowledged that it was repeatedly urged to shut the event down by Beijing because it goes against the country’s laws.
“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,” the statement from Zoom said.
Zoom’s compliance with the Chinese government’s request has stirred questions on where the loyalty of the company lies in the issue of privacy and security. The development has heightened the growing scrutiny emanating from security concerns over Zoom’s ties with Beijing.
The accounts of Zhou Fengsuo, a Chinese activist based in the US, was shut down days after he hosted a memorial for the Tiananmen massacre, and Lee Cheuk-Yan, a pro-democracy activist based in Hong Kong, who has been organizing a yearly vigil for the victims of the crackdown was suspended too.
Though Zoom said it has restored the accounts, human rights and pro-democracy campaigners are concerned about the growing influence that the Chinese government is having on the tech company. The two accounts suspended are based in outside China where the Chinese laws have no jurisdiction, which suggests that Zoom, which is operational in 80 countries around the world, is under the grip of the Chinese authorities.
Zoom is among few media-tech companies of foreign origin allowed to operate in China. Others have been shut out over their refusal to play by the censorship rules of the Chinese Communist party.
The Chinese government has been in the news of misinformation dissemination recently on social media platforms that are banned in China.
On Thursday, Twitter issued a notice disclosing 32,242 accounts of state-linked operations attributed to China, Russia and Turkey. The accounts were removed for various offenses hinging on violation of the platform’s manipulation policies.
However, it seems to be a tip of the iceberg in efforts that the People’s Republic of China is making to exert influence on tech companies around the world. Zoom has unfortunately been caught up in the controversy that may jeopardize its bright future.
Yan said Zoom’s willingness to allow China to pressure it to determine who uses the video app and who doesn’t is “shameful.”
“They have restored my account but Zoom continues to kneel before the Communist party. 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, adding that he has closed down his account and asked for a refund.
Zoom said it doesn’t have the technology to block accounts from certain countries, which led to the decision to shut the Tiananmen event down. The company said it is working on the technology that will enable it to block participants by country instead of shutting them down.
Zoom said it did not give any information to China, and “will not allow the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of Mainland China,” which alluded to the concern that the Chinese government will continue to exert a measure of influence on the company. The development thus confirmed the fears of many and brewed new antitrust concern from the US authorities and human rights activists.
Wang Dan, one of the activists commemorating the Tiananmen event, and whose account was shut down twice at the request of China said the Communist Party is intensely attacking democracy and free speech around the world.
“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,” he said.
On Friday, China said Twitter should take down accounts that smear China if the social media platform is serious about fighting misinformation.
With the growing effort by China to control what goes out in platforms outside China, the United States government is beginning to take interest in the activities of Zoom. Representatives Greg Walden and Cathy McMorris Rodgers wrote Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan, asking him to explain his company’s actions. Senator Josh Hawley also asked Yuan to “pick a side between American principles and free speech, or short-term global profits and censorship.”
China researcher for Human Rights Watch, Yaqui Wang, said given that China’s laws don’t conform to international human rights standards, tech companies should come together to fight their censorship influence.
“Tech companies should stand together to resist Beijing’s censorship demands and uphold the right to freedom of expression. Otherwise, the groveling will never end,” she said.
Many see Zoom as a young company with an impeccable reputation and future to protect, and its relationship with Beijing is putting it in a position that may hurt the progress it has made so far. Experts said the last thing Zoom needs right now is a sanction from the US government as a consequence of enabling Chinese censorship.