Already under fire for security lapses and facing scrutiny over its links to China, Zoom made the startling decision earlier this month to ban three users organizing memorials to mark the Tiananmen Square massacre at the request of Beijing. It’s now reversed the decision, according to a company post released late Thursday. But it’s still going to help China block accounts of users in the country.
Though the tech giant neglected to use the words “Tiananmen Square” in its post, it acknowledged that the Chinese government had been in touch earlier this year to warn about four Zoom-hosted commemorations of the famous pro-democracy protests in 1989. China wanted the groups and the administrators banned.
Astonishingly, Zoom chose to monitor the metadata for the calls from the U.S. so it could tell if anyone from mainland China was participating. And when it discovered that people from mainland China were joining three of the meetings, it shut down the calls and suspended or terminated the host accounts.
Those hosts – Lee Cheuk-yan, Wang Dan, and Zhou Fengsuo – have now had their accounts reinstated. Fengsuo, a U.S.-based activist and president of Humanitarian China, sounded the alarm on Sunday when he discovered his paid-for Zoom account had been shut down, according to the South China Morning Post. On Wednesday, he had his account back.
Zoom will still aid Chinese censorship
Zoom admitted it made errors in banning the users, saying it would “not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China.” That indicates, of course, that it will still assist the Chinese government on cracking down on dissent within the country.
In fact, it’s creating tech to do just that. “Zoom is developing technology over the next several days that will enable us to remove or block at the participant level based on geography,” it wrote. Such technology is already widely used in China as part of its Great Firewall, which blocks citizens from visiting certain sites and online services. In making this tech, Zoom is effectively aiding the Chinese government with that same censorship, even if it thinks it’s doing something positive.
“This will enable us to comply with requests from local authorities when they determine activity on our platform is illegal within their borders; however, we will also be able to protect these conversations for participants outside of those borders where the activity is allowed,” the company added.
U.S. representatives Greg Walden and Cathy McMorris Rodgers have now sent a letter to Zoom chief Eric Yuan, asking for clarity on what data it shares with China, according to Reuters. Republican senator Josh Hawley even asked Yuan “pick a side” between the America and China.
In its blog post, Zoom wrote: “We did not provide any user information or meeting content to the Chinese government. We do not have a backdoor that allows someone to enter a meeting without being visible.”
Zoom had already faced criticism for creating encryption keys in China, where it has a big research and development arm. It said that was a mistake and has issued a patch to prevent it happening again. Later, Zoom came under fire for only providing end-to-end encryption for paying customers.
In its own SEC filings, the communications company warns investors it could face additional scrutiny because of its Chinese links. “We have a high concentration of research and development personnel in China, which could expose us to market scrutiny regarding the integrity of our solution or data security features,” it’s previously written.
Those ties to China are only going to lead to more strife for the business, one that has become a fixture of lockdown life, and a stock market darling. Tech companies have had to walk a fine line in doing business with China and the rest of the world with Apple, LinkedIn and Google all coming under fire for trying to placate China’s communist rulers. For Zoom, and its founder Eric Yuan, ties to China raise the stakes dramatically.
I’m associate editor for Forbes, covering security, surveillance and privacy. I’ve been breaking news and writing features on these topics for major publications since 2010. As a freelancer, I worked for The Guardian, Vice Motherboard, Wired and, amongst many others. I was named BT Security Journalist of the year in 2012 and 2013 for a range of exclusive articles, and in 2014 was handed Best News Story for a feature on US government harassment of security professionals. I like to hear from hackers who are breaking things for either fun or profit and researchers who’ve uncovered nasty things on the web. Tip me on Signal at 447837496820. I use WhatsApp and Treema too. Or you can email me at TBrewster@ , or tbthomasbrewster@ .