Zoom shares easily shook off the controversy about the app's vulnerability to intrusion by the Chinese, since most normal Americans don't really care - if some MSS spooks want to eavesdrop on our conversations with grandma, they can go right ahead. They might even learn a thing or two.
But on Thursday, concerns about Zoom's ties to Beijing resurfaced following reports that the company disabled the accounts belonging to the surviving members of the Tiananmen Square student movement during a video chat event they held to commemorate the anniversary of the incident last week (in China, the massacre is referred to as "the June 4th Incident"). The call was shut down by the company at the behest of the Chinese government because it included dissidents dialing in from China, the FT reports.
As the FT reminds us, nearly one-third of Zoom's workforce resides in China, although the company trades on the Nasdaq. Much of its R&D takes place in China, and its servers are based there (making them vulnerable to infiltration). Famous student leader and exiled dissident Wang Dan reportedly participated in the call.
Zoom disabled the accounts of a group of Chinese dissidents in the US after they used its video conference service to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre. Zoom’s role in shutting down the meeting, which was hosted and organised by activists in the US but included participants dialling in from China, will increase fears about the platform’s security and how it will respond to government censorship requests. Zoom’s video chat service has exploded in popularity since lockdowns were introduced across the globe to slow the spread of Covid-19. The company, which is listed on Nasdaq, has a large operation in China: nearly a third of its workers are based in the country and much of its R&D takes place there. It also has servers in China.
Zoom claimed it disabled the accounts, including one paid account, because the call 'violated local - ie Chinese - law'.
Mr Wang’s team shared screenshots with the Financial Times of his Zoom call being cancelled twice and two of his team’s paid Zoom accounts being disabled. The cancellations started just as the meetings were due to begin on the morning of June 4 in the US, where Mr Wang is based. Zoom later suggested that the Tiananmen commemoration had violated local laws, saying that “We strive to limit actions taken to those necessary to comply with local law . . . We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted.”
The Tiananmen dissidents alleged that Zoom shut down the call on direct orders from the CCP.
“31 years ago, we were on the streets fighting the Chinese Communist party police; today, these kinds of confrontations have shifted to the realm of cyber space,” wrote Mr Wang on Facebook. “Through destroying freedom of speech online, the CCP seriously threatens freedom of speech and democracy globally."
Mr Wang’s team attributed the cancellations to hacking attempts or orders from the Chinese Communist party. Beijing has always sought to quell discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, although previously focused on its own territory. Last month, the government stopped Zoom from allowing individual users to sign up in China, according to the Nikkei Asian Review. “The memorial events for the June 4 massacre . . . impair the CCP regime’s legitimacy. Hacking such an online memorial meeting would do nothing beneficial to any other people or organisations except the CCP, especially its top leaders,” said a member of Mr Wang’s team when asked as to the motives behind the attacks.
The NYT's longtime Beijing bureau chief offered a more in-depth look at Zoom's decision in a twitter thread, and an explanation that before it soared to global popularity, Zoom was once "a hole in the Great Firewall" that Beijing is now moving to seal.
So Zoom suspended the account of @ZhouFengSuo after he hosted a virtual vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Some context on Zoom in China: it has been on Chinese censor's radar for a while, but seems to have fallen thru the cracks. https://t.co/DFVtvFdPsK— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
In Sept. 2019 Zoom was briefly blocked in China. In response a Zoom reseller posted instructions for real-name registration and said there had been a call from the Ministry of Public Security to follow the cybersecurity law. That got it out of the doghouse for the time being.— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
Yet as Zoom soared to prominence this year, Chinese could still get on anonymously and connect with the world. It was a bridge over the Great Firewall. For May 1, Zoom blocked unregistered Chinese accounts from being able to host meetings. They could only join as participants.— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
Still, unregistered accounts could join calls like Zhou's Tiananmen Vigil, which would likely be blocked on any other platform in China. It was a classic hole in the wall that came with new tech. And people used it. It's classic cat-and-mouse tactics to get around censorship.— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
The question is, what happens next? Zoom could block Chinese unregistered users, which hurts its business. It could block connections between China and the world, which would harm its service. Or it could censor accounts like Zhou's, which angers many and alienates US politicians— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
Zoom says it will protect users from censorship, but adds "for situations where local authorities block communications for participants within their borders, Zoom is developing additional capabilities that protect these conversations for participants outside of those borders.”— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
The strange language makes me wonder whether they're going to create a separate feedback system that could cut users inside China off calls, while keeping the calls open for people outside China. Something like that might appease Beijing. The alternative is being fully blocked.— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
It shows the political minefield an American company must navigate to survive China's strict censorship rules. Unclear how Zoom will fare. The fact that Zoom hosts live video communications will make China's internet regulators particularly nervous. It's tough to stay ahead of.— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
Whether to censor on China's behalf is a separate matter. What's interesting is Zhou used LinkedIn, which censors in China and so isn't blocked, to advertise the Zoom vigil. Still Zhou opposes such practices "an American company put Chinese-style restrictions on users in the US."— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
He had this to add: "The Great Firewall enslaves the Chinese people. It is the fatal flaw for an open and free internet....The best option is to tear down the Great Firewall.”— Paul Mozur 孟建国 (@paulmozur) June 11, 2020
The decision to censor the conversation is just one more example of why users should avoid the popular app, which has refused to implement end-to-end encryption and shown an alarming indifference to implementing security standards that might protect users from Beijing.