Zoom Shuts Down NYU Event To Discuss Whether Zoom Should Be Shutting Down Events Based On Content

from the content-moderation-inception dept

Last month we wrote about Zoom blocking an online event by San Francisco State University because one of the speakers was Leila Khaled, a Palestinian activist/politician. 50 years ago she was involved in two airplane hijackings. As I noted in the post, this blockade was somewhat different than social media companies doing content moderation. Zoom is not hosting content, but rather just transmitting it, and thus is more akin to telecommunications infrastructure, and that raises significantly more questions about what it means when it starts reviewing the content of calls.

Indeed, because of this move, a series of online seminars were setup to discuss this very issue -- and they were done on Zoom. The company apparently got wind of one such event at NYU and refused to let it happen:

Today, Zoom unilaterally shut down a webinar hosted by the NYU chapter of the AAUP, and co-sponsored by several NYU departments and institutes. The webinar was scheduled to discuss the censorship, by Zoom and other big tech platforms, of an open classroom session last month at SFSU, featuring the Palestinian rights advocate Leila Khaled.

Of course, we recognize that it is an act of sick comedy to censor an event about censorship, but it raises serious questions about the capacity of a corporate, third-party vendor to decide what is acceptable academic speech and what is not.

I would argue that this was not, as is claimed, "censorship." There are literally dozens of other platforms that can be used for webinars these days, and many of them would probably be happy to host this event.

While I think that Zoom certainly has a legal right to exclude users it doesn't want, it still sets a worrying precedent that they're picking and choosing who can use the service based on what they might talk about during a call. I recognize that some will insist (perhaps in both directions!) that this kind of thing is no different than Facebook or Twitter or YouTube banning someone, but to me there remain fundamental differences in the type of service being provided (transmission of transitory bits, rather than long-term hosting of content). Separately, unlike social media platforms, you can participate in a Zoom call without getting a Zoom account. As such, this strikes me as a slippery slope that goes way beyond social media content moderation.

After the cancellation of the NYU event (in which Khaled was not speaking), Zoom put out a bland meaningless statement about its various terms of use, but refused to explain what policy was possibly violated by this academic seminar about Zoom's content moderation practices.

“Zoom is committed to supporting the open exchange of ideas and conversations and does not have any policy preventing users from criticizing Zoom,” a spokesperson for the company said. “Zoom does not monitor events and will only take action if we receive reports about possible violations of our Terms of Service, Acceptable Use Policy, and Community Standards. Similar to the event held by San Francisco State University, we determined that this event was in violation of one or more of these policies and let the host know that they were not permitted to use Zoom for this particular event.”

However, Zoom did not respond to questions about which specific policy was violated or whether other events have been shut down by the company.

As we've been saying, content moderation questions can be different based on different types of services, and which layer of the infrastructure stack they exist in. I think Zoom is making a mistake here.

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Filed Under: content moderation, events, infrastructure
Companies: nyu, zoom


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 9:50am

    One Less Video Platform

    I would argue that this was not, as is claimed, "censorship." There are literally dozens of other platforms that can be used for webinars these days, and many of them would probably be happy to host this event.

    Given this new information, I, for one, will not be using Zoom at home or at work. Those conversations are private, meant for the attendees' ears only. If Zoom wants to listen in for any reason I certainly have no motivation to expose corporate secrets or private information to them.

    As you said, there are plenty of alternatives. It could be argued that Zoom was the alternative given their late entry into their market.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 10:02am

      Re: One Less Video Platform

      Zoom has different tiers of service for different purposes.

      I do wonder what would have happened if someone using Enterprise Zoom or Educational Zoom had tried to arrange this.

      It also seems to me that the market is ready for a middleware service that connects to multiple systems so that if Zoom stops working for any reason, BlueJeans is automatically pushed to participants, or Teams, or one of the many other conferencing tools.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 29 Oct 2020 @ 9:21am

      Re: One Less Video Platform

      If Zoom wants to listen in for any reason

      They didn't listen in, they cancelled it ahead of time.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 28 Oct 2020 @ 9:54am

    Having the right to do a thing doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 10:05am

      Re:

      some day I would like to know why this very simple idea is... so hard for some ...things to understand.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 1:33pm

        Re: Re:

        would like to know why this very simple idea is... so hard for some ...things to understand.

        Because artificial intelligence is even harder than natural intelligence.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 28 Oct 2020 @ 10:01am

    Pulling a Trump...

    'We shut down the seminar that was going to discuss our past actions and the actions of social media platforms not because they were discussing something we didn't want them to, but because they broke... some rule.

    No we won't tell you which one it is, as it's obvious which one it was but you just don't want to see it.'

    Zoom, just admit that some idiot panicked and shut down the seminar in a botched attempt at damage control, doubling down on blatantly obvious lies is really not helping improve things for you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 10:03am

    Zoom: "They know what they did."

    (My advice to zoom: we already beat that horse to death, find another issue to be stupid over)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 28 Oct 2020 @ 10:43am

    Why is it that everyone gets upset over the fact that Zoom chose to block uses of its software, but it apparently doesn't even occur to anyone that there is absolutely no reason that video conferencing software needs to go through a remote server to function?

    All that should be required is that you run the software on your system, tell it to accept incoming connections and set a password for doing so. You then give your IP address to the people you want to be able to connect and they enter it in their copy of the software. Maybe hosting large events requires running the software on multiple servers, but that still should be up to the people hosting the event and not some third party.

    Where did this idea that absolutely EVERYTHING that uses the internet needs to have a digital leash attached to it, come from? Any why is it just universally accepted? Why does nobody even ask why all these programs require you to connect through a third part server?

    Imagine if you bought a digital camera, but all the photos and videos you shot with it were encrypted and you needed to take to an authorized dealer to have them converted into normal formats. Or if you were required to tell the company that built your car where you were going before each trip, so that they could authorize it. Sounds ridiculous, right? But yet an internet app that requires you to go through the programmer's server for no valid reason? Sure, no problem! WTF?!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 1:27pm

      Re:

      Because convenience is king above all else and having to learn and set something up is anathema. Servers have everything set up and maintained already with known hardware on their end.

      People already chose the path of least resistance and choosing to even recognize that you could theoretically DYI it makes you an outlier. To most the notion seems about as conceivable as building your own car from scrap metal and getting it declated road legal - "I don't remotely have the years of skills for that and even if I did why the hell would I do that?"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 1:45pm

      Re:

      Where did this idea that absolutely EVERYTHING that uses the internet needs to have a digital leash attached to it, come from?

      It came from sales and marketing folks realizing that there's more money to be made in subscriptions than in outright selling software. By leashing you to a central server they can cut you off whenever they like if you don't keep paying for your subscription. Recurring revenue is worth far more than plain old sales.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 9:45pm

      Re:

      Where did this idea that absolutely EVERYTHING that uses the internet needs to have a digital leash attached to it, come from?

      Because of IPv4's limited address space and the need to use NAT just to make it all work was a default requirement for a significant portion of the Modern Web's development.

      Essentially, to establish a connection you need to know what port to send data to. An easy thing if the device is directly accessible, but when NAT is involved, there is no accessible port assigned to the device until the device attempts to connect. It's a classic catch 22, we need a port to connect to, but there won't be a port until we connect. NAT devices workaround this via port forwarding. Where specific ports on the "public" address are statically assigned, a.k.a. "forwarded", to a specific device.

      The problem with this workaround is that most people don't want to bother with it, and that automated protocols like UPNP are security nightmares. Rather than deal with all of this, most people just chose to use online services who had the money to buy one of the limited public addresses that everyone could use.

      A side effect of this was that internet traffic was able to be broken up into services, and consumers. A difference that ISPs gladly realized could make them more money by charging higher prices for public addresses and forbidding those who lacked them, i.e. consumers, from running anything that could be considered "hosting a service" on their connections in their subscriber agreements. As such, in many places even with IPv6 available, people still can't legally run a server themselves.

      Another side effect was that online service providers became gatekeepers to the web's content. A fact that they happily realized that they could monetize, by selling eyeballs that were forced to go through their servers to advertisers.

      IPv6 does mitigate this issue by creating more public addresses, but adoption is very slow, most guides will say to turn it off as the first step of connection troubleshooting, and it doesn't actually fix the problem so much as it kicks the can further down the street. Many developers see no reason to switch gears in this case, most companies would stand to loose ad revenue by loosing their gatekeeper status, and ISPs would stand to loose revenue by charging a flat-rate for connections. Going back to an ad-hoc means of communication is something that is actively fought against by almost everyone involved in the modern web.

      Any why is it just universally accepted? Why does nobody even ask why all these programs require you to connect through a third part server?

      Much like electricity, people tend to follow the path of least resistance. The fact that caused this problem in the first place. With so much designed to go through third parties, and the massive backlash against anyone who dares stray from this path, most will be sheep and do as they are told without thinking about it. Even more so when they realize that they'd have to explain to an apathetic audience why they can't just do some socially expected task because, for example, they chose to remove the ad tracking from their device. (Root your device? Remove Google Play Services? No mobile payments for you.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 29 Oct 2020 @ 10:25am

        Re: Re:

        it doesn't actually fix the problem so much as it kicks the can further down the street.

        IPv6 allows 3.4 x 10^38 unique IP addresses. If we give everyone their own IP address, and then double the number of assigned addresses every year, we'll run out in about 100 years. Given we won't see anything like that kind of growth, I would say it's far enough down the street that it will probably be time to replace it for some other reason long before we actually run out of numbers.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 29 Oct 2020 @ 2:29am

      Re:

      "Where did this idea that absolutely EVERYTHING that uses the internet needs to have a digital leash attached to it, come from?"

      Marketing. There are plenty of well-established open-source tools which allow people to build direct client-client connections. It's just that the tool which is generally accepted is the one which everyone uses in their ordinary day job. And that tool's the one which was purchased for the company by another tool with the IT knowledge of a dead lemming, who'd been hoodwinked by a snake oil salesman peddling crippled software.

      "But yet an internet app that requires you to go through the programmer's server for no valid reason? Sure, no problem! WTF?!!"

      From my early days when I still worked IT I learned that "people are stupid and hate to learn". I'd very much like for that to some day be revealed as false.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 29 Oct 2020 @ 7:30am

        Re: Re:

        From my early days when I still worked IT I learned that "people are stupid and hate to learn". I'd very much like for that to some day be revealed as false.

        From my time as a software dev, I've learned that (some/many) programmers selectively don't like learning ether.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 11:06am

    Welp. I can only hope this nascent idiot teleconferencing platform has finally put too many holes in its rowboat. There really should be technically better (and better secured) solutions, run by a better company. And as Rekrul has pointed out above, you don't bloody need a 3rd party service involved anyway.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 11:46am

    Wait ... I was told it was conservatives that are being censored.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jilocasin (profile), 28 Oct 2020 @ 1:38pm

    next it will be Verizon or AT&T

    Personally I think of Zoom like Verizon or AT&T or maybe Straight Talk Wireless would be a better analogy. Just as they aren't allowed to listen in, not that they don't anyway (talking to you AT&T/NSA), and then block your calls on what you want to talk about, Zoom shouldn't either.

    There's a fundamental difference between:

    1. infrastructure (ISP, Phone Company, Delivery Service, etc.)
    2. reseller of infrastructure (MVNO, Zoom, etc.)
    3. platform hosting content (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.)
    4. individual users or companies

    Unless you are doing something illegal tiers 1 & 2 shouldn't be allowed to base their decisions on the content of your communications. At least not in this country.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2020 @ 7:25pm

      Re: next it will be Verizon or AT&T

      except in the real world the distinction you are drawing between zoom and 3 is non-existant.

      The fact that they immediately forward the content they get on to others is... incidental (I imagine facebook and twitter do the same thing for portions of their content). The fact that they aren't actually long term storing the content (at least that we know of) is also, irrelevant.

      They don't provide any infrastructure. It's entirely possible that their entire service is hosted by Amazon, or some other cloud hosting service.

      The reason that the 1/infrastructure group is treated differently (in some) cases is that they have something like a natural monopoly. Even in the absence of regulatory capture, it's cost prohibitive for your average person to start laying down large swaths of fiber. Never mind the legal challenges that might exist to even do so.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 29 Oct 2020 @ 10:29am

      Re: next it will be Verizon or AT&T

      Just as they aren't allowed to listen in, not that they don't anyway (talking to you AT&T/NSA), and then block your calls on what you want to talk about, Zoom shouldn't either.

      That isn't what they did. They found out about a meeting some people were planning, and told them they couldn't use Zoom for it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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