Future Tense

Is Zoom More Like the Phone or Facebook?

The answer could have major implications for free speech.

A laptop screen with boxes of different cartoon faces in them.
What exactly is Zoom? Getty Images Plus

In the pandemic, Zoom has become a verb, like Xerox or Google. With astonishing speed, the video communications platform has gone from a niche business tool to the default mode of communications for private companies, governments, academic institutions, and artists, as well as individuals catching up with family and friends. To “Zoom” with someone, for the past nine months, has often been more or less the only way to speak with them.

Given the way it is used, Zoom might seem like a neutral piece of communications infrastructure, akin to your cellphone or cable service provider, rather than a social network or publishing platform like Facebook or Twitter. But in truth, it functions as a little bit of both, as professor Rabab Abdulhadi recently learned.

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Abdulhadi is no stranger to controversy. The director of Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies at San Francisco State University and co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, she was named in a 2017 lawsuit alleging that she had fostered a climate of anti-Semitism on campus—the suit was dismissed and she vigorously denies the accusation—and has filed her own lawsuit against her university alleging racial discrimination.* And when she co-organized a Zoom event on Sept. 23 featuring veteran Palestinian resistance figure Leila Khaled, there was reason to expect it would be controversial. Khaled is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, and took part in two plane hijackings during the late 1960s.

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Initially, the idea for the event seemed like a rare silver lining in the pandemic. Last spring, when in-person classes at SFSU first shut down, Abdulhadi had collaborated with Tomomi Kinukawa, a colleague in the women and gender studies department, on a series of classes examining media portrayals of women in the Palestinian movement, focusing in particular on Khaled. With in-person classes still shut down the following semester, Abdulhadi thought, why not bring in the woman herself?

“If we were teaching in person, we could never afford to bring such well-known people to our classes. Now that we are online, this actually gives us a huge opportunity,” she says. “We can invite people, bring them to our students, and make the conversation open to the public.”

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The event was to be a conversation between Khaled and four other activists—Abdulhadi notes that two are Jewish—to discuss media narratives around the Palestinian movement. “We weren’t really focused on the fact that Leila Khaled is a member of the PFLP or hijacked planes. That wasn’t the purpose of this. This was a discussion about the question of gender justice and Palestine,” she says.

Still, many Jewish and pro-Israel groups swiftly accused the professors and SFSU of providing a platform for a terrorist. The Lawfare Project, a U.S.-based pro-Israel litigation group that had been involved in the previous suit against Abdulhadi, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. It also lobbied Zoom, informing the company that hosting the event could constitute material support for terrorism. SFSU president Lynn Mahoney authored an op-ed condemning the “glorification of terrorism“ as well as “antisemitism and other hateful ideologies” but stated her commitment to the “ability of faculty to conduct their teaching and scholarship without censorship.”

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But all of the controversy did not keep people from signing up. To the contrary, the publicity probably helped. “The night before, we had over 1,500 people who were registered on Zoom, and over 4,000 people expressing interest on Facebook. That’s when Zoom issued a decision that they were going to block it,” says Abdulhadi.

The decision had come the night before the conversation was due to be held, and the following morning Abdulhadi says she contacted the university administration in hopes it would set up a new platform for the event but was told that the school had an exclusive contract with Zoom and that she would have to make her own alternate arrangements.

Jennifer Summit, provost of SFSU, told Slate via email that the university “did work hard to help Dr. Abdulhadi identify alternatives” but that “the request came in only shortly before the event was due to take place, which left little time.” She added: “The university is on record in disagreeing with Zoom’s decision.”

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In the end, the event was hosted for 23 minutes on YouTube before it was taken down for “violating YouTube’s Terms of Service.” The Facebook event page was also taken down, with the company citing its policy “prohibiting praise, support and representation for dangerous organizations and individual.”

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Following the event, faculty at a host of other universities, including NYU and the University of Hawaii, organized their own Zoom events with Khaled, which were all similarly shut down.

Dima Khalidi, director of the advocacy group Palestine Legal, is concerned about the precedent. “If Zoom is listening to groups that disagree with a particular speaker, there’s no end in sight. If they’re putting themselves in the positions of being a censor especially of what happens on college campuses, that’s an untenable situation,” she say. This is particularly worrisome considering that in the era of social distancing, universities and other institutions are often dependent on Zoom to have events at all.

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Abdulhadi is particularly frustrated with Zoom, which she says “presents itself as this benevolent platform,” and with her university’s reliance on it during the pandemic. “They have a monopoly over our classrooms. You cannot have a class without having Zoom.” She likens the experience to that of Palestinians in the West Bank, forced to go from checkpoint to checkpoint to travel from one place to another. “This felt the same way, when we were running from place to the other on the platforms just to continue,” she says.

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On the day of the SFSU event, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs praised Zoom for “preventing PFLP terrorist Leila Khaled from abusing its platform to spread her bigotry and calls for Jewish State’s destruction,” adding, “Tech companies need to uphold policies & protect the safety of all of its users against such hate-speech.”

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Zoom claims this was a straightforward case of a terms of service violation. In an e-mail to Slate, a company spokesperson pointed to the company’s terms of service, which prohibit using it for any purpose “that violates applicable law, including but not limited to anti-spam, export control, privacy, and anti-terrorism laws.” They wrote:

When we are made aware of potential violations of our policies, we review the facts and circumstances of each individual event and make a determination about whether that particular event is either in conformance with or in violation of our policies. In light of Ms. Khaled’s reported affiliation or membership in a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization, we determined that SFSU’s September meeting featuring her as a speaker would be in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service. When SFSU was unable to confirm otherwise, Zoom let SFSU know that they could not use Zoom for this particular event.

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Abdulhadi disputes that her event constituted support for the PFLP, noting that no money changed hands, that the topic of the discussion was media representation not Khaled’s activities, and that anyone participating in the event was free to challenge her.

Gerard Filitti, senior counsel at the Lawfare Project, argues that this is irrelevant. “Material support is not limited to money,” he notes, referring to a 2010 Supreme Court case that upheld restrictions against a U.S. nongovernmental organization providing legal training for banned terrorist groups. Filitti argues that events like the one at SFSU “help lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups that makes it easier for those groups to persist, recruit members, and raise funds which could be used to carry out attacks.”

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Khalidi says the blocking of the event is an example of “the constant censoring of Palestinian voices, and the story has to be viewed in that context.” Indeed, the story is inseparable from current hot-button debates about pro-Palestinian campus activism, boycotts of Israel, anti-Semitism, and Israel’s political influence in the U.S. But the role of Zoom in the story raises larger questions.

In 1989, Zhou Fengsuo was a student leader during the protests on Tiananmen Square, which landed him on China’s most-wanted list and forced him to flee to the U.S. after spending a year in prison. Today he leads an NGO, Humanitarian China, which supports civil society activists in the country. In commemoration of the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, Zhou was planning a May 31 event, and at first, it appeared that Zoom offered a unique opportunity to connect supporters in the U.S, Hong Kong, and mainland China. “I decided to use Zoom because at that time it was available in China,” he says. “With one click you can get into the meeting and it could reach people who had not bypassed the firewall. That is very important for us because we do not want to put our audience in danger. Of course, there’s a risk. We don’t really know what kind of surveillance is attached to Zoom.”

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He says signs of trouble began early, when one of the organizers mysteriously lost access to his account. He instructed another colleague to buy the most expensive premium version of the service in order to minimize risk. Another dilemma was that in order to contact participants in China before the meeting, he had to use WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media and messaging app known to be heavily surveilled by the state. Some of those he had been in contact with stopped responding during the lead-up to the event. “We know [WeChat is] completely transparent to the [Chinese Communist Party], but for many people it’s the only way we can talk to them,” Zhou says. “Later we confirmed that police were watching our WeChats.” At least one participant who had recorded a video to be included in the event was detained by police and threatened with imprisonment if he took part in the event, according to Zhou.

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Still, the commemoration went forward on May 31—the link to the meeting was closely guarded and shared with a small trusted group. Zhou considered the event a success, in part because of Zoom itself, which allowed participants to hear testimony about the events of 1989, discussion of which is banned in mainland China. “There were probably about 100 people we never knew before in the meeting,” he says. “We could sense their excitement by the comments. This was the first time they’d heard such things. It shows the potential of what Zoom could do if it became a bridge of communication.”

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The next day, Humanitarian China lost access to its Zoom account. The company told Axios, “Just like any global company, we must comply with applicable laws in the jurisdictions where we operate. When a meeting is held across different countries, the participants within those countries are required to comply with their respective local laws.”

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There had already been questions raised about Zoom’s links to China, where it owns three other companies and where some of its product development takes place. A report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab in April found that some user data have been transferred through the country. Taiwan has banned the use of Zoom by government officials over security concerns. In August, the company, whose CEO Eric Yuan was born in China, announced it would no longer sell new products directly to China. The company has also developed technology to remove or block calls at the participant level. A Zoom spokesperson told me this would allow the company to “comply with requests from local authorities when they determine activity on our platform is illegal within their borders; however, Zoom will also be able to protect these conversations for participants outside of those borders where the activity is allowed.”

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Zoom says Humanitarian China’s U.S.-based account has been restored, but Zhou says he no longer feels comfortable relying on the service. This is not his first time falling afoul of a major technology platform: His Chinese LinkedIn profile was briefly suspended in 2019 over his political advocacy.

Among the questions raised by these cases is exactly what Zoom is. While there’s a heated debate about what sort of expression should be permitted online, there’s general agreement across the political spectrum that there should be at least some limits: that social media services should not host propaganda from terrorist groups like ISIS, for instance. These sites are also now expected to curb hate speech and disinformation, even if there’s disagreement over how to define those categories (and what to do about speech that falls into them).

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If Zoom were a social publishing platform like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or TikTok, it would seem reasonable that it should have some limits on content based on local laws, whether or not you agree that any particular example is actually in violation of that law.

But is that what Zoom is? The company has grown exponentially during the pandemic not because people are using it as an alternative to Facebook, but because they’re using it as an alternative to phone calls. “Telling users that when you do the pandemic equivalent of picking up the phone, you have to be familiar with the community standards policy of the phone company, that’s a lot to ask of people and I think it’s unreasonable,” says Corynne McSherry, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has consulted with the organizers of the Leila Khaled event. She argues, “Zoom could choose to be neutral infrastructure, like Comcast, or it can choose to be YouTube. Given how dependent we all now are on Zoom, we need it to act more like an access provider, because that’s really what it is. No one looks to Comcast or AT&T to moderate everything that happens on its infrastructure.”

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In this scenario, Zoom might still be blocked in China, though it wouldn’t preemptively comply with Chinese political censorship. For comparison, Zoom competitor Skype is not available in app stores in China but still works there, and I have used it to communicate with sources in China.

Filitti of the Lawfare Project argues the distinction doesn’t matter. “For the purposes of material support, I don’t think it matters exactly how you define Zoom and other services. They are internet tools that facilitate these services to terrorist organizations. From our perspective, this is not an issue of speech or academic freedom, this is conduct—the setting up of the event.”

However, this raises the additional question of what an “event” is. Journalists regularly contact members of terrorist organizations or hate groups for comment and then reprint those comments. This is undoubtedly a way for those groups to spread their message. But nobody holds the phone companies that facilitate those calls, the manufacturer of the microphone used by the journalist to record them, or the printing presses that print the pages on which the interviews appear liable for abetting whatever propaganda might be spread. Is a Zoom event different simply because the public can participate live?

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On the other hand, there are risks to treating services as pure, neutral communications tools. Facebook-owned WhatsApp, for instance, is for the most part a messaging tool rather than a publishing platform, but that hasn’t stopped it from being used to organize lynch mobs or abet the mass spread of disinformation and propaganda to voters.

Many services act a bit like publishers and a bit like phone companies, making it difficult to know exactly which set of guidelines to apply to them. This is just one of the dilemmas posed by a global situation in which nearly all official communication is mediated by a handful of private companies.

Zhou, who has been working for democracy and human rights in China for more than three decades, sees advancements in technology as a double-edged sword. There are ways of now communicating with colleagues, and reaching a large audience, that would have been unimaginable decades ago. But the very tools that make this communication possible also make activists more vulnerable to censorship and surveillance.

“We’ll keep trying new channels, but it seems this machinery of censorship is much more sophisticated now,” he says. “The door is always closing.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Update, Dec. 18, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify the SFSU president’s statement about the event.


Correction, Dec. 20, 2020: The article originally misstated the name of Abdulhadi’s program.

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