• Zoom said on Thursday it deactivated the accounts of multiple US-based human rights activists at the request of the Chinese government.
  • Zoom said it blocked the hosts’ user accounts because it doesn’t have the functionality to block individual accounts by location.
  • It promised going forward it will “not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China.”
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Zoom has admitted it blocked the accounts of Chinese human rights campaigners because China asked it to.

Axios reported Wednesday that an account belonging to Zhou Fengsuo, a US-based human rights campaigner who was a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, had been suspended after he hosted an event commemorating the protests.

Initially Zoom said it had suspended Zhou’s account to comply with “local laws,” but was not specific about which local laws were being enforced. In a blog post published on Thursday, Zoom confirmed it was the Chinese government which had forced it to shut down multiple human rights users’ accounts after they hosted meetings about Tiananmen Square. 

The meetings were attended by Chinese users, which meant they fell under Chinese censorship laws forbidding the discussion of Tiananmen Square. Zoom said in its blog post that it shut down the meetings because it does not have the capability to block users individually by country.

“We could have anticipated this need. While there would have been significant repercussions, we also could have kept the meetings running,” the company said.

It has since reinstated the users’ accounts and says it is working on functionality to block users based on their geographical location. “Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China,” it promised.

News of Zoom blocking the accounts prompted Republican Senator Josh Hawley to write a letter to company CEO Eric Yuan, asking whether Zoom is trying to “curry favor” with China’s Communist Party.

The senator also recalled in April when Zoom said it had “mistakenly” routed some users’ calls through servers in China, sparking privacy and security concerns.

In some ways the news of Zoom censoring Tiananmen Square memorials mirrors concerns by US lawmakers around the wildly popular shortform video app TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance. Reports surfaced last year that TikTok’s moderators had been instructed to censor mentions of politically contentious issues and events including Tiananmen Square, sparking fears that this could mean China’s censorship laws could be enforced against users outside of China.

The key difference is that while TikTok is owned by ByteDance, Zoom is an American company.

“One would have thought that a supposedly American company whose claim to fame is serving a fast, virtually seamless video chat would value free speech. But your company appears to have chosen censorship instead,” writes Senator Hawley.

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