On May 31, activists, survivors, and relatives of those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests held a commemorative vigil over Zoom. A week later, on June 7, Humanitarian China, the pro-democracy group behind the vigil, discovered that Zoom had shut down its account.
Humanitarian China says it found out its account had been deactivated when it tried to log in on Saturday and was greeted with a message saying the account had been shut down. Repeated attempts to log in failed. Axios initially broke the news, and after other media outlets began to pick up the story, the account was restored on Wednesday.
“We are outraged by this act from Zoom, a U.S. company. Simultaneous to our censoring, thousands in relation to the Tiananmen Commemoration and Free Hong Kong Movements were silenced within China both online and through in person detainments,” the group wrote in a press release. “Humanitarian China demands an explanation of why our account was shut down, we will pursue other channels to protect our rights.”
In its release, the group says about 250 people from China and other countries joined the vigil, while more than 4,000 streamed the event over social media. Some speakers had to pre-record their messages, as they were “prevented by police from reporting live.”
In a statement emailed to Gizmodo and other outlets, Zoom defended its decision to deactivate the account, saying it was attempting to comply with local laws.
“Like any global company, Zoom must comply with laws in the countries where we operate,” it said. “Our platform is increasingly supporting complex, cross-border conversations, for which the compliance with the laws of multiple countries is very difficult. We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted.” The statement goes on to say that Zoom intends to protect users from “those who would wish to stifle their communications.”
On Twitter, activist Zhou Fengsuo, president of Humanitarian China and a student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests, indicated that “Zoom is doing what [the Chinese Communist Party] want to silence us.” A Zoom spokesperson declined to comment whether China’s government pressured it to shut the account down.
Humanitarian China’s account isn’t the only one that’s been shut down. Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, told the Associated Foreign Press that he’d been locked out of his Zoom account since May 22. Like Humanitarian China, he said this happened when his organization tried to host an online discussion about “China’s influence around the world.”
Zoom has become the de-facto video conferencing program since the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic. However, it is also subject to pressure from China. According to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, Zoom has at least 700 employees in China for “research and development,” making it particularly vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese government. In April, Zoom admitted it had “mistakenly” routed some of its video calls through China, including those made by users outside of the country. One of Zoom’s Chinese resellers has also published explicit instructions on how to register users’ real names for the service, effectively linking a person’s online presence to their phone number. (China requires citizens to scan their faces for internet access and new phone numbers.)
Zoom is not the only U.S.-based tech company that’s made questionable decisions that align with the wishes of the Chinese government. In October, Apple sold out pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, removing a smartphone app that activists used to keep tabs on the police. Tim Cook’s response at the time was similar to Zoom’s, stating that the app was in violation of local laws. Gaming company Blizzard also came under fire after it stripped prize money from and banned a professional Hearthstone player for making a pro-Hong Kong statement. A group of U.S. lawmakers then slammed both companies for capitulating to Chinese censorship.
As more U.S. companies seek to profit from the Chinese market, this type of cross-border censorship will continue. And while there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, this latest incident—along with multiple security concerns—is a good reason to review whether Zoom should be your video conferencing software of choice.
Updated: 6/11/2020, 1:07 p.m. ET: This post and its headline have been updated to clarify that Zoom reinstated Humanitarian China’s account this week.