Stifling free speech . . .
Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform accessible in China and around the globe, admitted Friday that it has suspended the accounts of several human rights activists due to pressure from the Chinese government. In one case last month, Zoom shut down the account of Lee Cheuk Yan, who organizes Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen commemoration, just before he was scheduled to host an event on the controversial extradition bill that sparked last year’s protests in Hong Kong. Similarly, Zhou Fengsuo, the founder of U.S.-based Humanitarian China, was shut down after hosting an online memorial for the Tiananmen massacre. Zoom said that Beijing demanded the company terminate the meetings and host accounts, as they were illegal in China. The activists accounts are now restored, and the company said it would “modify its processes to further protect its users from those who wish to stifle their communications.”
Platforms push back . . .
Amidst growing international criticism of the country's handling of COVID-19 and Hong Kong, China has been increasingly active in shaping its own narrative across various digital platforms. While Beijing pressured Zoom to shut down activists, it is using other platforms to go on the offensive, setting up accounts and pages to propagate its version of events. These campaigns, however, are prompting social media companies to take action. Yesterday, Twitter announced that it has removed 23,750 accounts that it says were engaged in promoting the Chinese government's response to the coronavirus and another 150,000 accounts used to retweet and like the content. A similar move was taken in August, when Twitter and Facebook suspended accounts believed to be tied to China’s disinformation campaign against Hong Kong protesters.
Regulatory influence on the rise . . .
The key difference between Zoom and other social media platforms is that Zoom has access to the Chinese market and runs its research and development in China. A recent report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab warns that while running its development in China allows Zoom to reduce costs, it also exposes the company to pressure from Chinese authorities. Zoom’s suspension of human rights activists’ accounts is indicative of this risk. As China develops into a powerhouse for digital platforms, such as the highly popular Tik Tok and other video conferencing applications, Chinese regulatory influence over cross-national communication is likely to grow stronger.