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


    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.)

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