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China-based Zoom employee charged for secretly censoring Tiananmen Square anniversary events

Prosecutors decry ‘Faustian bargain’ for US companies in China

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A China-based former Zoom employee is being charged with harassment for allegedly disrupting video calls commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Brooklyn federal prosecutors unsealed a case against Xinjiang (also known as Julien) Jin today. The complaint doesn’t identify Jin’s employer, but Zoom published a blog post acknowledging that it employed him.

According to the complaint, Jin was a liaison between Zoom and Chinese law enforcement and intelligence services. He allegedly used this position to target dissidents and activists both inside and outside the People’s Republic of China, collecting account information and disrupting meetings. “The allegations in the complaint lay bare the Faustian bargain that the PRC government demands of U.S. technology companies doing business within the PRC’s borders, and the insider threat that those companies face from their own employees in the PRC,” said acting US attorney Seth D. DuCharme.

While serving as a “security technical leader” at Zoom, Jin allegedly identified users who discussed “disfavorable” political and religious topics, then worked with other employees to stop these users from participating in calls. As the 31st anniversary of the protests approached, the complaint says, he asked US-based employees to provide account information about dissidents planning to commemorate the events. Chinese authorities subsequently detained potential participants inside China and in at least one case, it threatened the family of a participant living abroad.

Most dramatically, Jin reportedly led a conspiracy to get Tiananmen Square-related events and their participants banned for violating Zoom’s terms of service. A group of employees allegedly set up accounts under false names using profile pictures with terrorism-related or pornographic imagery. Then they infiltrated Zoom event rooms and reported the meetings for hosting “disgusting pics,” “child abuse,” and content “inciting violence” — based on images from their own fake accounts.

Zoom apologized earlier this year for terminating public commemorative events and the accounts of their hosts. At that point, it said it shut down the meetings because they had a large number of participants from mainland China, and Chinese authorities had called the events unlawful. “Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China,” the company promised. An update to the post acknowledged that at least one session was terminated due to “an apparent terms of service violation.”

In a post following the unsealing, Zoom said it had cooperated with the Department of Justice and launched its own internal probe, resulting in Jin being terminated and other unnamed employees placed on leave while the investigation concludes. Zoom says it appointed Jin after the Chinese government abruptly terminated its service and demanded it comply with local censorship laws. “The shutdown put Zoom in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position,” the post reads. “As we worked to resolve the shutdown, China requested that Zoom confirm it would comply with Chinese law, including designating an in-house contact for law enforcement requests.”

Jin is charged with conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and unlawful conspiracy to transfer means of identification, based on his alleged impersonation of Zoom users. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years, but the Department of Justice says that Jin has not been taken into custody.