Sunday, June 14, 2020

Zoom plans new blocking features to comply with requests from Chinese government

Zoom says it’s working on new features that will allow it to block users based on their geographical location after admitting it recently suspended three user accounts based in Hong Kong and the US at the request of the Chinese government.

The company was widely criticized for suspending the accounts, which were hosting meetings to commemorate the June 4th Tiananmen Square massacre. In a blog post, Zoom said it had reinstated the accounts and was developing tools to allow targeted blocking.

“Zoom is developing technology over the next several days that will enable us to remove or block at the participant level based on geography,” said the company. “This will enable us to comply with requests from local authorities when they determine activity on our platform is illegal within their borders.”

The announcement will exacerbate concerns that Zoom is happy to block and suspend users in order to comply with the wishes of the Chinese government.

One activist called the company’s actions “shameful”

Zoom said it was informed by the Chinese government in May and early June that four meetings commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre would be taking place. After the company established that three of the meetings either contained a number of participants from mainland China or were likely to, it decided to end them and suspend the host accounts. Zoom says that these host accounts have since been reinstated. The company says it took no action against a fourth meeting.

According to Zoom, however, it wouldn’t have terminated the meetings if it had the ability to block meeting participants based on their location. This new feature, it claims, could allow the meeting to take place outside of China without any users attending from the country, meaning Zoom would not be obliged to take down the meetings in their entirety.

“Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China,” Zoom says.

Pro-democracy activists have criticized Zoom’s willingness to comply with requests from the Chinese government. “Companies with a conscience should not accept requests from dictatorships,” Wang Dan, one of the affected activists, told the Financial Times, noting that his team has since switched to using Google for its web calls. “As an American company, Zoom has the responsibility to defend American values.”

Another campaigner, Lee Cheuk-Yan, who’s based in Hong Kong, told The Guardian that he used Zoom to allow him to reach activists based inside the country. “My purpose on opening Zoom is to reach out to mainland Chinese, breaking the censorship of the Chinese Communist party. With this policy it defeats my original purpose,” he said, calling Zoom’s response “shameful.”

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