As the coronavirus pandemic rages on with no end in sight, the United Nations has announced it will partner with Tencent to celebrate its 75th anniversary — via video conference.
The Chinese tech giant and the UN say they want to have online conversations with millions of people across the globe about what the world should look like in 25 years, and the role of international co-operation in solving global pandemics such as the coronavirus.
The company, which owns the Chinese superapp WeChat, has the biggest social media reach in China. Its videoconferencing platform Tencent Meeting has more than 10m daily active users, while VooV Meeting, the international version of Tencent Meeting, is now available in over 100 countries and regions around the world.
But the UN’s partnership with Tencent has given privacy campaigners cause for concern. For one thing, it means sending global conversation data — at some points unencrypted, and so visible to Tencent — through a country known for its invasive line on privacy. Like other Chinese tech companies, Tencent is required to comply with requests for user data from the Chinese government.
“This isn’t just a massive PR win for Tencent. This is also the UN normalising and validating Chinese state surveillance,” says Lokman Tsui, a scholar and activist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Tencent is arguably the biggest enabler of Chinese state surveillance.”
Beijing relies on the country’s tech giants to help clamp down on diverse voices. In the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak, Tencent censored information about the disease — a move that many argue may have limited the Chinese public’s ability to protect themselves from the disease, which has now killed 3,335 people in the country.
The censored Covid-19 keywords covered a wide range of topics including factual information about the disease as well as both critical and neutral references to how the government handled the outbreak.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist party is bolstered by a deep arsenal of vague laws on which it can draw to compel companies to aid it, including its national intelligence law, national security law, counter-terrorism law and cyber security law.
Moreover, global tech giants have a history of handing over data to the Chinese government. In 2005, for example, a Chinese journalist was sentenced to 10 years in prison after Yahoo allegedly helped the Chinese authorities to track him down.
In recent weeks, the growing privacy woes surrounding the US videoconferencing platform Zoom have illustrated heightened concerns western countries have over the exposure of their data to China.
In the same week that researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab revealed that Zoom was transmitting keys for encrypting and decrypting global meetings to servers in Beijing, groups including Nasa, SpaceX, the Taiwanese government and the New York City public school system all banned the use of the service.
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The UN says that partnering with western platforms such as Google Hangouts or Facebook is not a viable option for its 75th anniversary, since the Communist Party blocks these services in China and the UN wants to reach as many people as possible. But conceding to a censorship barrier and opting for a partner known to stifle debate feels at odds with the event’s premise of a “global dialogue”.
Perhaps none of this may be of concern to an eager citizen of the world who wants to help mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations by sharing their views on climate change or gender equality.
But international co-operation is fundamentally political. Last month, the UN became embroiled in Chinese politics when a top official at the World Health Organization, a UN agency, was asked by a journalist about Taiwan’s WHO membership.
Taiwan has been praised by international experts for how its handling of the coronavirus outbreak has saved lives, but China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, has previously demanded that the UN exclude it from the World Health Organization on the grounds that it is not an independent state.
The official first refused to answer the journalist’s question, then appeared to hang up on the video call. It could be a portent of things to come.