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US lawmakers call for answers on Zoom shut-down of Chinese dissident accounts

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), here in a file image, served as the lead sponsor on a bill, approved unanimously, aimed at supporting protesters in Hong Kong and warning China against a violent suppression of the demonstrations. (Miami Herald/TNS)
June 17, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

More than a dozen U.S. lawmakers took Zoom to task and demanded detailed explanation Friday after the California-based teleconferencing company admitted to suspending the accounts of three Chinese activists at Beijing’s request.

Zoom said Thursday that it had deactivated the accounts of U.S-based, pro-democracy activists Zhou Fengsuo and Wang Dan, and Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-Yan at the request of the Chinese government after they held meetings using the online media platform in conjunction with the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Zoom defended its action by saying that the closures were necessary to “comply with local law” because some of the participants resided inside China.

“We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted,” Zoom said in a statement to RFA’s Mandarin Service. “It is not in Zoom’s power to change the laws of governments opposed to free speech.”

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But U.S. lawmakers blasted the company, with some of them questioning Zoom’s recent actions and acquiescence to China which they said raised serious concerns about its data practices.

“We write with deep concern” regarding the blocking of meetings and suspension of accounts of the activists at the request of the Chinese government, a dozen senators representing both the Republican and Democratic parties said in a letter to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan.

They demanded he answer a long list of questions, including the names of the Chinese organizations or officials who made the requests to terminate the accounts, what actions Zoom took to push back the requests, and the number of accounts Zoom had closed outside of China in order to comply with Chinese law.

In the letter by the senators led by Republican Marco Rubio, Yuan was also asked whether “Zoom routinely share[s] data with the PRC Government, and, if so, what kind of data does it share.”

“Not content to silence those within their borders, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] frequently reaches abroad to target those who would speak up about the party’s abuses,” the letter said.

‘Choose a side’

In a separate letter to Yuan, Republican Senator Josh Hawley said Zoom should “choose a side: American principles and free-speech, or short-term global profits and censorship.”

“Trading American values for Beijing profits never ends well,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of inviting American companies into its borders, only to steal proprietary information and technology and then repurpose that data for its own use.”

Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, also sent a letter to Yuan demanding answers to another set of questions.

The company’s action “alarms us”, they said, citing Zoom’s admission that some data on non-China users had been routed through China earlier this year and reports that researchers found Zoom’s encryption used keys issued via servers in China.

Wang Dan, a U.S.-based dissident and exiled student leader of the crushed 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, said Zoom was an American company, “and as such should first abide by the laws of the United States, not the laws of China.”

“Freedom of expression is protected under U.S. law.”

“They shouldn’t be shutting off access to their services or closing accounts for political reasons,” said Wang, who is considering taking legal action against the company.

Zoom said that the accounts of the three activists have been reinstated, “and going forward, we will have a new process for handling similar situations.”

The Tiananmen crackdown, in which Chinese leaders deployed military tanks and machine guns to end several weeks of student-led protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989, remains a sensitive issue in China. Any information about the massacre on the Internet is heavily censored there.

Beijing has never released a full death toll, but estimates by human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand. The government has disregarded calls to make public government records from that time, and explain the chain of events that led to the deaths.