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Zoom caught in China censorship crossfire as meetings foiled

HONG KONG – Video app company Zoom says that it blocked several meetings and suspended the accounts of three activists at the request of the Chinese government.

The company released details Thursday saying that in May and early June, the Chinese government notified it about several online meetings planned to commemorate the crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

China bans public dissent. Zoom said the government told it such activities were illegal and demanded that the company terminate the meetings and the host accounts of the organizers, even though they did not live in China.

Zoom then suspended the accounts of U.S.-based activists Zhou Fengsuo and Wang Dan, and Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-Yan. It has since reinstated all of their accounts.

“Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China," Zoom said in a blog post dated June 11.

The company said it is developing technology that would allow it to block participants based on geography. That would mean it could stop people in mainland China from attending future meetings on Zoom that are deemed illegal by the Chinese government.

It did not give details on how it would determine which meetings would fit that description. That raises the issue of Zoom acting as a censor on behalf of the Chinese government.

Some international social media companies, like Twitter and Facebook, are mostly blocked inside China.

Zoom is not. But it is among many companies subject to close scrutiny by Beijing as they operate across global borders. Issues related to cybersecurity and censorship are particularly acute for those that route through or store data in the Chinese mainland.

“Though my account was unblocked, I cannot accept that Zoom will instead block Chinese participants. Shame on Zoom for political censoring on behalf of the Chinese government,” said Lee, who confirmed that Zoom had reinstated his paid account as of Thursday. But he said he plans to cancel it.

Lee, who each year helps to organize Hong Kong’s annual candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 crackdown, earlier said he was locked out of his paid Zoom account on May 22 ahead of a live video talk he organized featuring a fellow activist, Jimmy Sham.

“My purpose of opening a Zoom account is to reach out to the mainland Chinese, breaking the censorship of the Chinese Communist Party. With this Zoom policy, it defeats my original purpose ... I have asked Zoom to pay me back the remaining months of subscription,” he said.

Zoom is headquartered in San Jose, California, but conducts much of its research and development in mainland China. Use of the virtual meetings app has skyrocketed during the pandemic.

Asked at a regular briefing on Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said she was not aware of issues involving Zoom.