June 4, 1989 —

Zoom cites Chinese law to defend censorship of human rights activists

Zoom says it can’t “change the laws of governments opposed to free speech.”

On June 4, 2019, people join the memorials for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in Victoria Park, Hong Kong.
Enlarge / On June 4, 2019, people join the memorials for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in Victoria Park, Hong Kong.
LewisTsePuiLung / Getty

On multiple occasions in recent weeks, Zoom has reportedly suspended accounts or disrupted meetings involving critics of the Chinese government. In an emailed statement, Zoom didn't deny the censorship. Instead, the company claimed that as a "global company" it was obligated to comply with the law in countries where it operates—including China.

"We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted," a Zoom spokesperson wrote. "It is not in Zoom’s power to change the laws of governments opposed to free speech." Zoom says it will "modify its processes" to better protect users.

Some of the people affected were in the United States, which has robust legal protections for free speech.

In one incident in early June, Zoom deactivated the account of Zhou Fengsuo, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who now lives in California. The move came days after Zhou participated in a Zoom meeting commemorating the Tiananmen Square protests, which ended in a massacre of protesters by the government on June 4, 1989. Zoom later restored Zhou's account.

On Thursday, Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-Yan reported that his account was deactivated on May 22, shortly before he was scheduled to broadcast a public Zoom interview with another Hong Kong democracy activist, Jimmy Sham. Lee said he couldn't get an explanation or a refund from Zoom.

"The account was suspended before the talk started. I've asked Zoom many times whether this is political censorship but it has never replied to me," Lee said to AFP.

The Washington Post reports on a third incident that occurred on June 3, when a meeting about the Tiananmen Square protests "was severed after the Zoom account that hosted it was deactivated midstream." The video event initially had more than 200 participants, according to organizers.

Similar events have been held using YouTube and Facebook's video streaming services without incident.

One reason activists promoting Chinese human rights like to use Zoom is that it's one of the few Western services that isn't blocked in China. But the price of that access is apparently that Zoom has to engage in a certain amount of censorship—including censorship that affects people outside of China.

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