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Is Zoom Safe for Chinese Students?

Scholars raise concerns about teaching on Zoom after it acceded to Chinese government demands to shut down activists' accounts. Zoom says it will develop technology to block users by geography.

June 12, 2020
 
ISTOCK.COM/Andrei Stanescu

China studies scholars say they are worried about teaching on the online meeting platform Zoom after multiple news outlets reported that the company temporarily shut down the account of a U.S.-based dissident after he organized a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on Zoom.

The company confirmed that it ended three Zoom meetings commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre and terminated the host accounts associated with those meetings -- one in Hong Kong and two in the U.S. -- after the Chinese government informed Zoom the gatherings were illegal in China. Zoom said the accounts have been reinstated.

Unlike many other major tech platforms based in the U.S., Zoom, which is headquartered in California, has not been blocked by the Chinese government. Zoom said in a blog post that it is "developing technology over the next several days that will enable us to remove or block at the participant level based on geography" which will allow the company to "to comply with requests from local authorities when they determine activity on our platform is illegal within their borders; however, we will also be able to protect these conversations for participants outside of those borders where the activity is allowed."

A Zoom spokesperson said in a statement, “Our platform is increasingly supporting complex, cross-border conversations, for which the compliance with the laws of multiple countries is very difficult. We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted.”

Zoom's interference with the Tiananmen gatherings and its suspension of user accounts raised alarm among many in higher education, which increasingly depends on Zoom to operate courses remotely -- including for students located within China's borders.

Colleges have widely embraced Zoom as a teaching platform since the coronavirus pandemic forced courses online. Many colleges expect that at least some of their Chinese students will not be able to make it to campus this fall, and they are making arrangements to teach them remotely using platforms like Zoom. More than 350,000 Chinese students studied in the U.S. in 2018-19, representing the largest group of international students by country of origin.

“In terms of higher education, this is really a huge, devastating revelation,” said James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University who researches the Xinjiang region of China, which the Chinese government considers a highly sensitive topic. “All of us who teach anything about China or who might be teaching anything sensitive, we now have to wonder is my account going to get canceled or are my students going to get reported.”

Millward said universities that use Zoom should identify alternative platforms accessible in China and make paid accounts to those platforms available to professors who teach on sensitive subjects related to China.

Millward was not alone in raising concerns. Multiple scholars took to Twitter to express their worries.

Sara Newland, an assistant professor of government at Smith College, said she expects at least some students to be participating in her Chinese politics class remotely from their homes in China this fall.

"I try to create a classroom in which students' prior assumptions about China are challenged, and in which students come to understand each other's perspectives better (even if ultimately they still disagree, sometimes strongly)," Newland said via email. "This means that we read about and discuss topics that are considered sensitive in China (Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, etc.), and that students need to feel comfortable participating in those discussions. Recreating that kind of classroom dynamic online -- on any platform -- will be difficult and maybe impossible. But I especially worry about the fear that students may feel about participating, given ongoing concerns about Zoom's security more broadly and especially the incident yesterday involving the cancellation of a Chinese activist's account.

"I imagine that students in the [People's Republic of China] may worry about potential consequences (for themselves or their family) of participating in a discussion of a 'sensitive' topic," she added. "And given that the account that was suspended yesterday was a US-based account, I imagine that Chinese students may worry about this regardless of whether they are physically located in China or not."

PEN America, a group that advocates for free expression, condemned Zoom for shuttering the activist's account.

"Zoom portends to be the platform of choice for companies, school systems, and a wide range of organizations that need a virtual way to communicate, especially amid global lockdown," the group said. "But it can’t serve that role and act as the long arm of the Chinese government."

This is not the first time Zoom's links to China have come under scrutiny. In April, the company admitted that some of its user data were "mistakenly" routed through China; in response, the company announced that users of paid Zoom accounts could opt out of having their data routed through data centers in China.

An April 3 report by scholars at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy said Zoom's research and development operations in China could make the company susceptible "to pressure from Chinese authorities."

Zoom, whose Chinese-born CEO is a U.S. citizen, said in its latest annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it had more than 700 employees at its research and development centers in China as of Jan. 31. The SEC filing notes that Zoom has a "high concentration of research and development personnel in China, which could expose us to market scrutiny regarding the integrity of our solution or data security features."

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