Zoom in hot water for allegedly silencing free speech

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Zoom is in hot water, both politically and from a public-relations perspective, after it temporarily suspended three accounts run by Chinese dissidents for hosting online meetings related to the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

"Zoom operates in more than 80 countries," read an unsigned posting on the Zoom blog yesterday (June 11), "which requires compliance with local laws even as Zoom seeks to promote the open exchange of ideas."

It turned out that while the three suspended accounts were all run by Chinese nationals outside mainland China — two of the dissidents were located in the U.S., while the third was in Hong Kong — all three meetings hosted by those accounts had or were expected to have participants joining from mainland China.

"The Chinese government informed us that this activity is illegal in China and demanded that Zoom terminate the meetings and host accounts," the blog post said.

Zoom did not take action against a fourth account that the Chinese government wanted "terminated," because Zoom the associated meeting "did not have any participants from mainland China."

Dual jurisdiction

Zoom is caught between a rock and a hard place here. Although it's a U.S. company, it has facilities and servers in China like many U.S. companies, and its CEO and founder, Eric S. Yuan, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born, raised and educated in China. 

Zoom has to comply with Chinese law for activities occurring in China, including Chinese residents dialing into Zoom meetings that are hosted overseas. 

Given the limits of its technology, the Zoom blog said, it had no legal recourse but to suspend (but not "terminate" as the Chinese government wanted) the meetings' host accounts.

"We currently do not have the capability to block participants by country," the blog post said. "We could have anticipated this need. While there would have been significant repercussions, we also could have kept the meetings running."

Naturally, this has led to an uproar in the United States. Several U.S. congressmen and senators have written angry letters to Zoom demanding whether Zoom routinely shares data with the Chinese government, whether other accounts belonging to Chinese dissidents had ever been suspended, and even whether there are Chinese Communist Party officials placed in Zoom's Chinese offices.

However, Zoom said it was coming up with a solution.

"Zoom is developing technology over the next several days that will enable us to remove or block at the participant level based on geography," the Zoom blog said. "Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China."

Of course, that won't satisfy everyone, especially not Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who has a reputation of being tough yet tech-savvy.

"Your actions so far suggest not an innocent desire to comply with 'local law,' but a desire to curry favor with the Chinese Communist Party so you can better access that market,"  Hawley wrote in a letter to Yuan. "It is time for you to pick a side: American principles and free-speech, or short-term global profits and censorship."

Paul Wagenseil

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at FoxNews.com, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.