June 15, 2020

On mute no more: Zoom gets a taste of international politics

The company blocked Tiananmen Square commemorations. US lawmakers got wind of it.

In every tech giant’s lifetime, there comes a moment when its leader has to make a pilgrimage to Capitol Hill.

TikTok’s moment arrived last December, when lawmakers urged execs to cut ties with the app’s Beijing-based owner, ByteDance.

Now it’s Zoom’s turn to sit in the hot seat. Last week, at the request of the Chinese government, the videoconference behemoth shut down 3 meetings held in commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The company also banned US and Hong Kong-based dissidents who hosted the meetings. Zoom eventually reinstated them after criticism

Now Congress has entered the chat

The move prompted a group of senators to send Zoom CEO Eric Yuan a letter asking for clarity on what data, if any, it shares with China. Another demanded that the company “pick a side” between the US and China.

Adding to the unease is an announcement from Zoom that it’s developing a tool to block individuals based on geography.

In theory, that means the Tiananmen meetings would have gone down as planned — but participants from mainland China wouldn’t have been able to join.

Bending to China’s wishes is nothing new

Last week, Apple deleted major podcast apps from its store at the government’s request.

But Zoom had enjoyed something of a honeymoon period inside China. Until recently, activists felt it was safer than some homegrown video conference solutions.

Reuters dubbed it “a window through China’s ‘Great Firewall.’” Now that’s all over.

Zoom looks ready to meet the challenge in Washington. This spring, it’s been staffing up its lobbying team — most prominently with H.R. McMaster, the former White House national security adviser.

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