Zoom will enforce Chinese Communist Party censorship, the company confirmed in an official release yesterday. Earlier this week, after it was alerted by the Chinese government, the company suspended three accounts for hosting Tiananmen Square memorials, including a U.S.-based pro-democracy group that featured mothers of those killed in the protests. The other two were based in the U.S. and Hong Kong. Zoom says a fourth meeting was allowed to proceed because it didn’t include participants from mainland China.
Memorials for those killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre are illegal under Chinese law. The blunder, according to Zoom, was suspending the hosts and making meetings unavailable to non-China-based users, rather than blocking individual attendees based in China. The host accounts have been reinstated, but the company says that it plans to implement a new feature specifically 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,” they write, adding, “however, we will also be able to protect these conversations for participants outside of those borders where the activity is allowed.”
The aforementioned host, California-based pro-democracy group Humanitarian China, reported that the company shut down its account days after its memorial conference, which it said drew 250 participants from around the world and 4,000 viewers on social media. A Hong Kong-based organizer, Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, said that his account was also suspended before he could host a conversation about the Chinese government’s influence beyond its borders, proving the meeting’s point. “The account was suspended before the talk started,” Lee told the Associated Foreign Press. “I’ve asked Zoom many times whether this is political censorship but it has never replied to me.”
Zoom says that it has not shared “any user information or meeting content.” When asked whether Zoom would go so far as to monitor topics of discussion, even those not advertised by meeting hosts, Zoom pointed Gizmodo to a tweet stating that “Zoom does not proactively monitor meeting content” and that Zoom does not have “backdoors” where “Zoom or others” can invisibly enter meetings (i.e., if you’re being spied on, at least you’ll know). Zoom has hidden some of the replies to that tweet, naturally.
“I am gravely concerned about the security of the users from China,” Humanitarian China president and 1989 Tiananmen Square organizer Zhou Fengsuo told Gizmodo, adding that he believes Zoom “is taking orders from Beijing.” He’s unsure where he might go for a decent alternative. “Unfortunately any commercially successful software will be subject to CCP’s rules,” he said.
Zhou said that the conference was the first Tiananmen Square memorial that many China-based attendees had ever been able to attend, and shared a moving excerpt in which a mother recounted the death of her then-high school-aged son, whose body was found buried in a middle school after the protests. She says that she’s been asking the government to formally acknowledge the massacre for decades and that she is constantly surveilled. The clip is on YouTube and therefore unavailable in China.
Zoom’s open admission that it will monitor users’ locations mid-meeting is alarming, to say the least. Though the company stated in a recent tweet that it “does not provide information to law enforcement except in circumstances such as child abuse,” it’s hard to take it at its word: Zoom has 700 employees based in China, according to the Citizen Lab, and Zoom has admitted to “mistakenly” routing non-China-based calls through China, and the company says it fixed the issue on April 3. Just look at TikTok, which has repeatedly promised that it doesn’t send user data to China and that it stores all U.S. user data outside China, and which is currently being sued for allegedly sending U.S. user data to servers in China. Unlike TikTok, Zoom is a U.S.-based company, but even Google nearly caved to building an entire search engine tailored for the Chinese government. Not to mention that Zoom’s reputation is already tied to leaky cybersecurity and teen invaders with search engine skills.
Zoom has also recently come under fire for how it frames its relationship with U.S. law enforcement. The company’s implied stance is that it only proactively monitors for child abuse, but the devil could be in the details—what else fits into the category of “like child abuse”? Ultimately, a Zoom spokesperson told Gizmodo, the company must comply with the local laws in the dozens of countries in which it operates.
In its post about the Tiananmen memorials, Zoom says it hopes “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.” Unfortunately, it goes on to say, those governments have laws, and it’s forced to navigate those laws as it expands its service. In its explanation of “how we fell short,” the company says that it “could have” kept the censored meetings running, but hedges: “There would have been significant repercussions.”
Correction 6:50pm ET, June 12: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that we asked Zoom about whether it would surveil calls about activities on the “legal fringes.” We also stated that we had not heard a response by the time of publication. All of that was wrong. We asked about obvious illegal activities, not fringe ones, and we totally just missed their email back. We’ve updated the piece to remove these errors.