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.
“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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