Ex-Zoom employee charged with censoring China dissidents in the US; company probed

Zoom said other employees have been placed on administrative leave pending the completion of its investigation. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - A former employee of video-conferencing company Zoom Video Communications has been charged by the US with conspiring to censor Chinese dissidents and disrupt a video conference commemorating the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, say Xinjiang "Julien" Jin, 39, was a San Jose, California-based telecommunications company's main liaison with law enforcement and intelligence agencies of the People's Republic of China. While Jin's employer wasn't identified by prosecutors, Zoom said on Friday it was the company.

Jin is living in China and not in custody, the US said. The company, whose video conferencing app has become ubiquitous during the pandemic, apologised in June for shutting down four Tiananmen Square commemorations at the demand of the Chinese government. Zoom pledged at the time that it would not let Chinese government demands affect users outside of China in the future.

In its Friday statement, Zoom said it was cooperating with prosecutors and had terminated Jin after it determined through an internal investigation he had violated company policies.

Zoom said other employees have been placed on administrative leave pending the completion of its investigation.

The company said it had also received subpoenas from federal prosecutors in California seeking information about contacts between its employees and the Chinese government.

"Zoom is dedicated to the free and open exchange of ideas and supports the US government's commitment to protect American interests from foreign influence," the company said.

'Faustian bargain'

Zoom also said in a blog post and a filing on Friday that the US Securities and Exchange Commission and two US Attorney's offices have been investigating the company for months.

"The allegations in the complaint lay bare the Faustian bargain that the PRC government demands of US technology companies doing business within the PRC's borders," said Seth DuCharme, acting US Attorney in Brooklyn, "and the insider threat that those companies face from their own employees in the PRC."

A Chinese citizen, Jin began working with Chinese officials and others in January 2019 to help terminate at least four video meetings hosted on the company's networks to mark the 31st anniversary of the massacre, DuCharme said. Most of these were organised and attended by US-based dissidents who'd participated and survived the 1989 protests.

"Jin willingly committed crimes, and sought to mislead others at the company, to help PRC authorities censor and punish US users' core political speech merely for exercising their rights to free expression," DuCharme said.

Jin is also accused of helping the Chinese officials identify meeting participants outside of China by providing their IP addresses, names and email addresses. Prosecutors say he also created bogus reasons to justify Zoom terminating meetings and certain user accounts, including faking evidence that users had violated the company's terms of service.

As a result of his actions, China retaliated against family members of some of these US-based dissidents and meeting participants, according to the US.

In July, Zoom received subpoenas from the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California and the SEC. Both sought documents and information about security and privacy matters, such as Zoom's data encryption, how the company calculates usage metrics and public disclosures about each.

The prosecutors also asked for information about contact between Zoom employees and representatives of the Chinese government, as well as if a foreign government had ever tried to or succeeded in influencing the company's policies, practices or actions relating to US-based users. Zoom said it was "fully cooperating" with the inquiries.

Zoom's popularity has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic with millions of people forced to remain at home to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Workers, students and families count on the video-meeting service to keep them connected to colleagues, teachers and loved ones. At the end of October, Zoom said it had 433,700 customers with more than 10 employees compared with 74,100 in the fiscal third quarter a year earlier.

The company's stock has jumped 500 per cent this year, closing Friday at US$406.01 (S$538.9) in New York.

Zoom settled a case in November with the US Federal Trade Commission, which accused the software maker of deceiving customers about its platform's level of security.

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