The system, which will launch in the next several days, will enable Zoom “to remove or block” a video meeting participant “based on geography,” the company said in a Thursday blog post.
Zoom announced the plan as it’s facing criticism for shutting down the paid account of a Chinese activist group located in California. On May 31, the group, Humanitarian China, hosted a video meeting to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. But a week later Zoom terminated the account on an order from the Chinese government, which learned of the video meeting by monitoring social media.
The controversy raises questions over whether Zoom — a US-based company — will continue to block users from accessing the service if the Chinese government demands it.
In the blog post, Zoom said the company made a misstep in shutting down not just one, but three accounts belonging to Chinese activists. All three are based in the US and Hong Kong, which lie outside the direct jurisdiction of the Chinese government. So in response, the company has reinstated the accounts. “We did not provide any user information or meeting content to the Chinese government,” it added.
Nevertheless, the company will comply with future censorship requests from the Chinese government. The reason: The video meetings the activists have been hosting are also attracting users from mainland China, a country that largely prohibits mention of the Tiananmen Square protests.
“Zoom does not currently have the ability to remove specific participants from a meeting or block participants from a certain country from joining a meeting,” the company said. “As such, we made the decision to end three of the four meetings and suspended or terminated the host accounts associated with the three meetings.”
To avoid repeating the same mistake, Zoom is going to let Chinese authorities file blocking requests, but only for users based in mainland China. “This will enable us to comply with requests from local authorities when they determine activity on our platform is illegal within their borders,” the company said.
The announcement sparked outrage from the activist community. “Tech firms such as Zoom must put principles before profit and defend internet freedom, rather than bowing to repressive governments’ demands to stifle it,” human rights organization Amnesty International said in a statement.
US senators also blasted Zoom for complying with China’s censorship requests. “Trading American values for Beijing profits never ends well,” Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) wrote in a letter to the company on Thursday. “When you censor for the Communist Chinese Party, you may think it benefits you, but the only one who will benefit in the long run is the Chinese Communist Party.”
However, according to Zoom, the company says it has no choice but to comply. “The reality is Zoom operates in more than 80 countries and continues to expand, which requires compliance with local laws even as Zoom seeks to promote the open exchange of ideas.” It plans to publicize the policy on responding to government blocking requests in a report on June 30.
Zoom’s blog post also emphasizes the company has no backdoor to enable employees or government authorities to infiltrate a video meeting without being visible. Zoom also says it never provides information on users to law enforcement, except in circumstances such as child sex abuse. Nevertheless, the controversy will likely drive activists and mainland Chinese users to consider alternatives to Zoom.