The popular videoconferencing platform Zoom is under fire after the U.S. company shut down an account used by dissidents in the United States and China to host an online vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
On Wednesday, after a public complaint was issued by the group Humanitarian China, Zoom — one of the few U.S. tech company platforms allowed to operate in China — had restored the accounts that had been blocked since June 7.
“Like any global company, Zoom must comply with laws in the countries where we operate,” the company said in a statement, expressing regret that a “few recent meetings” involving people inside and outside China were negatively impacted and “important conversations were disrupted.”
“Our platform is increasingly supporting complex, cross-border conversations, for which the compliance with the laws of multiple countries is very difficult.”
Both Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, even though Chinese diplomats use both platforms to spread Chinese government propaganda abroad.
Humanitarian China held the online vigil on its Zoom account May 31. The Tiananmen meeting brought together some 250 people — with another 4,000 streaming the sessions via social media — to mark the events of June 4, 1989, when pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were brutally suppressed by Chinese military forces.
China has banned all references to the protests and the crackdown in its propaganda and social media outlets. The U.S. government estimates that hundreds to perhaps thousands of people were killed by tanks and armored vehicles and shooting by troops.
Humanitarian China said in a statement that the May 31 Zoom meeting was its first to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre and that it was “outraged” by Zoom’s decision a week later to suspend its account.
“Simultaneous to our censoring, thousands in relation to the Tiananmen commemoration and Free Hong Kong movements were silenced within China both online and through in person detainments, the group said.
On June 7, the Zoom account used for the conference call displayed a message that said the account had been shut down. A significant number of the participants were in China and organizers think Zoom bowed to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party.
“If so, Zoom is complicit in erasing the memories of the Tiananmen massacre in collaboration with an authoritarian government,” the statement said.
Among the speakers were representatives of the dissident group Tiananmen Mothers, who are relatives of those killed or imprisoned since the 1989 crackdown, as well as veterans of the pro-democracy protests. Chinese participants provided pre-recorded messages to the online conference as they had been prevented by Chinese police from taking part live.
One Tiananmen protester, Dong Shengkun, who was imprisoned for 17 years, was detained by Chinese authorities for five days to prevent him from joining the Zoom meeting. The accounts of Wang Dan and the Hong Kong Alliance, a pro-democracy group, also were shut down.
Zoom’s action highlights security concerns about the platform voiced by the U.S. government.
The Pentagon and some other institutions, including U.S. schools, have banned the use of the commercial version of Zoom for online meetings over the company’s links to China. Use of videoconferencing software has increased dramatically during the nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
A study in April by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto found that Zoom has close links to three companies in China, two of which it owns. The company also employs some 700 employees in China engaged in research and development.
“This arrangement could also open up Zoom to pressure from Chinese authorities,” the study said.
Zoom also is a target of intelligence services, the study said.
“Zoom’s success has led it to attract conversations that are of high priority interest to multiple governments,” the report said. “We suspect that this makes Zoom a high-priority target for signals intelligence (SIGINT) gathering and targeted intrusion operations.”
Lianchao Han, a pro-democracy activists and former Senate staff member, said the U.S. government should scrutinize Zoom’s Chinese ties.
“As more people are using Zoom, it’s critical not only to ensure the security of their data privacy but also their commitment to free speech rights,” he said.
The Toronto study also warned about flaws in Zoom encryption to protect the privacy of online meetings.
Zoom CEO Eric Yuan acknowledged in an April 3 blog post that the company failed to prevent user data from being sent to China, writing, “We failed to fully implement our usual geo-fencing best practices.” Former White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster joined the company’s board in May.
Zoom said in response to the Humanitarian China incident that it can’t change the laws of governments that restrict free speech, but it is “developing additional capabilities that protect these conversations for participants outside of those borders,” the company said.