Zoom, one of the most popular video-conferencing apps, has announced in a blog post that they are going to modify the software that will enable them to block or remove participants based on their geographical location. The announcement came after they were criticized for adverse actions they took against human rights activists Lee Cheuk-yan, Wang Dan, and Zhou Fengsuo at the request of mainland China. Though Zoom has said that they are not going to take any more requests from the Chinese government about accounts outside mainland China.
We’ve heard the concerns surrounding Lee Cheuk-yan, Wang Dan, and Zhou Fengsuo’s accounts. We’ve thought a lot about this. Here are the facts and what we’re doing about it: https://t.co/XGzJD5raSX— Zoom (@zoom_us) June 11, 2020
Zoom had disrupted or disabled the accounts of the activists who are based in the USA and Hong Kong while doing Zoom meetings on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the events in Hong Kong. Following media reports about the disruptions, Zoom had said that it had been contacted by the Chinese government in May and early June about four Zoom meetings to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre that were being publicised on social media.
“The Chinese government informed us that this activity is illegal in China and demanded that Zoom terminate the meetings and host accounts,” the company said. Zoom said that it has no ability to block participants from particular countries, so it decided to end three of the meetings and suspended or terminated the associated host accounts. The company said it took no action for one meeting because metadata showed it had no participants from mainland China, however two of the others had a “significant number of mainland China participants”.
The account of Zhou Fengsuo, a Chinese activist based in the US, was shut down days after he hosted a memorial for the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong based activist Lee Cheuk-Yan’s account was shut down just before hosting an event on the controversial extradition law that has caused mass anti-government protests in the city. A Zoom event on 3rd June organised by Wang Dan to commemorate the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown was shut down twice by the company.
As Zoom is not banned in China like several other platforms, it is used by activists outside the country to connect with people in the mainland.
The announcement raises questions
First of all, Zoom has accepted that the current policies are impacting users outside mainland China. They were actively taking requests from the Chinese government and removing or blocking participants from hosting or joining meetings. That means, if the Chinese government found any said user against the interest of the ruling government, all they needed to do is request Zoom to block access for that user.
After Zoom faced backlash, they are saying that they will make changes in their policies so that the users outside mainland China will not get affected. However, the new update will allow the governments of any country to remove or block users using the platforms from the respective countries. If your country’s government thinks that you are doing something illegal on Zoom, they will remove you from the platform. Such censoring is against the very nature of Zoom being an open platform. It also defies the purpose of having end-to-end encryption based conversation if the governments have access to the meetings.
Zoom and history of ‘controversies’
This is not the first time video conferencing app Zoom has been caught in controversies. In the past, many governments have blocked the app in their respective countries after Zoom accepted using Chinese servers to route meetings. Though Zoom has its headquarters in San Jose, California, the development and maintenance work takes place in its China-based establishment. When the entire world was under lockdown, Zoom saw an overwhelming increase in the number of users. Many governments were also using this feature-rich app. Later after Zoom accepted using Chinese servers even for meetings taking place in other countries, it faced backlash and governments banned it. In may a Church from San Francisco sued Zoom after a porn clip appeared during online Bible class.
Recently, many users from Hong Kong and the US claimed that their accounts were suspended allegedly based on China’s “request. Zoom has confirmed in the blog post that they indeed blocked one account from Hong Kong SAR and two from the US. Zoom also said in the blog post that they have reinstated the accounts and apologized to users for the inconvenience.
Key takeaways from Zoom’s statement
- In May and early June, Zoom received several requests from the Chinese government to block or suspend accounts as those accounts were allegedly involved in illegal activities against China.
- Zoom admitted taking action on some of the requests, but they also stated that they did not provide any meeting content to the Chinese government.
- Currently, no option can allow Zoom to remove certain users from an ongoing meeting or block someone from joining a meeting. Zoom said that this is the reason they had to end the meetings and terminate associated accounts.
- Zoom admitted that instead of blocking users based on their geographical location, they terminated the accounts.
- Zoom will not adhere to requests made by the Chinese government to terminate or block accounts outside mainland China.
- They will work on upgrading the application to allow governments to request to block, terminate, or suspend accounts from their respective countries.
- Zoom will release an updated version of the global policy by 30th June 2020 to improve transparency.