Free Speech

Zoom Sharply Reduces Its Content Restrictions for Academic Institutions

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Here's the new policy, which I understand has just been put up:

Zoom recognizes that we have a unique relationship with our higher education users…. We created this statement because our higher education users wanted to know where we stood. We want to stay true to our values to be transparent and incorporate the feedback of our customers in everything we do. While we understand that the physical campuses we know and love do not neatly translate to the virtual spaces of today, we owe it to our higher education users to align our approach to speech and conduct as best we can with those of the academic institutions we serve.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are defining commitments for many of our higher education users, both inside the classroom and on the broader campus. In drafting this comment, we take special guidance from the American Association of University Professors' 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

This comment is for any higher education institution that has academic freedom policies substantially similar to the AAUP's inside the classroom, or policies protecting speech on campus that are similar to the rules governing U.S. public universities.

For Zoom meetings and webinars hosted by a higher education institution, the Trust and Safety team will only act on reports alleging content-related violations of our Community Standards or Terms of Service that come from the meeting's host or the account's owners or administrators, unless:

  • Zoom determines that there is legal or regulatory risk to Zoom if it does not act;
  • the report alleges an immediate threat to the physical safety of any person; or
  • the meeting or webinar is unrelated to the institution's academics or operations.

Zoom will make best efforts to consult with the higher education institution as soon as is reasonably possible before acting on any complaints about violations of Zoom's Community Standards or Terms of Service. On occasion, Zoom may require the higher education institution to put in writing that a particular meeting is related to the institution's academics or operations, that the institution agrees to the meeting being hosted in its account, and that the meeting meets the institution's standards for events on campus and online.

It's a substantial improvement, I think, for academic institutions, whether one thinks that Zoom should also take a more hands-off approach (such as that mandated for phone companies, UPS and FedEx, and other such common carriers) to other users as well.

Here is a letter that the University of California Academic Freedom Committee (an organ of the faculty, rather than of the administration) sent Zoom about its old policy in February; the new policy appears to be a response to letters such as this one:

The University's responsibility to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression cannot be outsourced. As we all know, UC currently relies heavily on platforms such as Zoom to facilitate our teaching, research, governance, and the public dissemination of knowledge. UC cannot, however, rely on private companies to protect the academic freedom on which those core university functions depend.

The threats here are not just hypothetical. Zoom has already canceled political events and academic discussions at other institutions, after receiving complaints and finding violations of their terms of service.[1] UCAF's worries go beyond the facts of particular prior cases, which vary in potentially important ways. UCAF is concerned about dangers evident in UC's own contract with Zoom, under which Zoom retains largely unfettered discretion to control what content it hosts. We suspect that Zoom is not alone in this regard.

Zoom's Terms of Service,[2] which incorporate by reference the company's Community Standards,[3] currently prohibit all of the following:

  • "posting or sending hateful imagery," where that is defined to include "symbols historically associated with hate groups (e.g. the Nazi swastika)," images of individuals altered "to include animalistic features," and "logos, symbols, or images whose purpose is to promote hostility and malice against others based on" protected grounds such as race, gender, or religious affiliation;
  • "the celebration of any violent act that may inspire others to replicate it";
  • depicting "any form of gory media related to death, serious injury, violence, or surgical procedures" or "media that depicts death, violence, or serious physical injury in graphic detail," including depictions of "visible wounds" and "bodily fluids";
  • nudity, which is restricted "by default," though Zoom "may make allowances" when "the intent is clear" that nudity is shared for "educational or medical reasons";
  • "impersonat[ing] anyone," defined as "pretending to be someone you are not";
  • "use [of] another's name or image without their permission";
  • engaging in activity that is false or misleading;
  • communicating "any material that is . . . indecent."

Zoom encourages users to report violations of its Terms of Use and Community Standards through its online "Trust Form."[4]

From swastikas portrayed in history classes to nudity in art studios, from clinical training in the medical schools to impersonation by our theater clubs, mock trial teams, and school mascots, members of the University of California routinely violate Zoom's terms and standards in the course of regular instruction, research, and extracurricular activities. Of course, Zoom may never enforce its terms and standards to the absurdly broad extent that their vague language would allow. (Insofar as it would never do so, Zoom should have no objection to clarifying and limiting its contractual language.) Under our current contract, however, the power to decide what content to allow lies with Zoom, not the University. This is an astonishingly open-ended threat to the University's ability to carry out its fundamental mission.

Zoom has the ability to censor University content on the basis of criteria—such as indecency, falsity, goriness, or the promotion of hostility—that would be unconstitutional for the University to employ in some contexts, and a serious violation of academic freedom in many other contexts. This will surely make companies like Zoom an attractive target for those seeking to influence what gets said, taught, and studied at the University. The University needs to take steps to guard against such outside influence now—particularly now, when UC is so thoroughly reliant on the services of companies like Zoom.

To their credit, our colleagues in Academic Affairs and Information Technology at UCOP had begun meeting to discuss these issues even before UCAF raised them. On December 4, 2020, in a letter to the Council of UC Faculty Associations (attached [see pp. 6-7 of this PDF]), the University Provost also addressed the problem, reaffirming in his letter "that the University of California is committed to upholding and preserving principles of academic freedom." Bringing attention to these principles is always welcome, but the present threat to them requires a stronger response.

Provost Brown writes in his December 4 letter that "Zoom is a private company that has the right to set its own terms of service in its contracts with users." This is true, but incomplete: the right to set contractual terms is not Zoom's alone; the University of California is party to the contract as well. UC has already negotiated additions to its contract with Zoom on issues of data security and privacy. Protecting academic freedom is no less vital. The University of California has the responsibility—and fortunately also the stature and market power—to negotiate terms of service that do not just facilitate the University's core activities, but preserve the academic freedom that makes them possible in the first place.

UCAF therefore requests that Academic Council call on the administration to take the following steps:

First, negotiate with Zoom for contractual terms that protect the academic freedom of UC faculty and other teachers and researchers, the freedom of scholarly inquiry of UC students, and the First Amendment rights of the entire UC community. Content on University of California Zoom accounts should be censored only if hosting it would cause Zoom to violate the law. Any other content limitations should be left to the University.

Second, identify other platforms that UC faculty, students, and staff can use as an alternative if censorship by Zoom occurs or is feared. Provost Brown's recent letter encourages faculty to "contact their local Information Technology Department for recommendations as to other vendors." But the threat of censorship is one that affects the entire University. It results from university-wide contracting. A university-wide solution is therefore appropriate. UC should make available backup platforms that can be used for courses and other events while UC's negotiations with Zoom proceed (or, certainly, if its negotiations fail).

Third, since Zoom is not the only private platform or service the University uses to carry out its core activities, UC should identify other contracts that might raise similar threats to academic freedom and free speech. A renegotiated contract with Zoom could provide a model for negotiations with those contractors, as well as for other universities grappling with similar concerns.

The University of California has an opportunity to be a leader on this important issue. UCAF asks that Academic Council endorse this statement of concern and proposed responses. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Brian Soucek, Chair
UCAF

[1] See, e.g., "Zoom Blocks Activist in U.S. After China Objects to Tiananmen Vigil," N.Y. Times (June 11, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/technology/zoom-china-tiananmen-square.html; Letter from CUCFA to UC President Drake (Sept. 24, 2020), https://cucfa.org/2020/09/potential-censorship-by-technology-providers/; Letter from AAUP to NYU President Hamilton (Oct. 28, 2020), https://academeblog.org/2020/10/29/aaup-urges-nyu-president-to-address-zoom-censorship/. But see "US Charges Ex-Zoom Employee with Shutting Down Tiananmen Square Events," BBC.com (Dec. 19, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55372493.

[2] https://zoom.us/terms/

[3] https://zoom.us/docs/en-us/community-standards.html

[4] https://zoom.us/trust-form

Disclosure: I'm a member of the UCAF (in my capacity as the Chair this year of the UCLA Academic Senate's Committee on Academic Freedom), and I generally agree with this letter, but I didn't take the laboring oar on it, and thus shouldn't get any of the credit.

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  1. I’m not sure why these service providers like zoom are so keen to regulate what happens on their platforms. When they do that they open a giant can of worms.

    1. It is the consequence of living in a litigious society.

    2. It’s a form of profit taking.

      If you take your profit in money, it’s taxable. If you take it in the form of manipulating public opinion and politics, it not only won’t be taxed, you might even annoy your customers enough to reduce your tax burden in the process.

      1. EXACTLY…

        Remember that many newspapers were originally founded to be vehicles for the owner’s viewpoints.

  2. Good for Zoom. Now they just need to give the rest of us the same consideration.

    Zoom may have the legal right to censor what goes on their platform but they do not have the moral right.

    1. Yep, that was my reaction – “Great! Why not give all the rest of us the same consideration?”

      1. Send them enough business and indemnify them from claims deriving from your zoom meetings and you might get that. The universities have now pioneered the contractual model.
        Go for it.

  3. “they do not have the moral right”
    I don’t see where such a moral right would come from.
    The legal right is all that actually matters in an overly litigious society,

  4. “the Trust and Safety team will only act on reports alleging content-related violations of our Community Standards or Terms of Service that come from the meeting’s host or the account’s owners or administrator”

    I don’t see any protection for students here…

    My fear is that where the institution itself couldn’t act against a student for the student’s protected speech, they could ask Zoom to do it for them. And if you read through FIRE’s list of cases, there are plenty of times when IHEs have sought to punish students for protected speech.

    1. I’ll go further — how is Zoom not a state actor?

      It is the agent of a public IHE — the student’s contract is with the school, not Zoom.

      1. Ed,
        In what distorted world is Zoom a state actor. That claim is mere hysteria.

        Note the Zoom “Safety Team” acts only on complaints from the University, the very body with which the students have contracts and which has obligations to protect its students.

        1. The state might find itself in a bind if Zoom declined to proved services based on criteria that the State couldn’t impose. If Zoom declined to provide services on behalf of the government based on protected speech, for example, the government might have to find an alternative way to provide the service, and that could get expensive.

          1. I keep thinking of the APA and the Jennifer Keeton case.
            https://adflegal.org/case/keeton-v-anderson-wiley

      2. Providing a service for pay does not make you an agent.

        I don’t think you want a country where working with the government makes private companies bound as though they were the government.

        1. “My fear is that where the institution itself couldn’t act against a student for the student’s protected speech, they could ask Zoom to do it for them.”

          “The government and its agents can’t hire people to do what they’re not constitutionally permitted to do themselves. Fedex pokes its nose into your package of their own volition? Private action.

          They do it because the government or one of its agents asked them? Yeah, absolutely it becomes a 4th amendment search.

          I suppose there will be marginal cases where Zoom was merely doing what they suspected the University would like them to do, where you’d have to establish if they’d been given some reason to suspect that.

          1. That’s via a warrant. The 4A isn’t the same space as the 1st. Or 14th.

            You really want to effectively nationalize a whole bunch of stuff, it seems.

            1. “That’s via a warrant. The 4A isn’t the same space as the 1st. Or 14th.

              You really want to effectively nationalize a whole bunch of stuff, it seems.”

              This comment makes no sense. In the hypo, the first operates exactly like the fourth: The school certainly couldn’t tell Zoom not to provide services based on protected speech.

              That doesn’t “nationalize” anything.

              1. And if the government told Zoom they needed to take some action that infringed on the 1A, that’d be a different thing. But more the government’s problem more than Zoom’s.

                1. “And if the government told Zoom they needed to take some action that infringed on the 1A…”

                  That’s the caveat in the comment you responded to.

                  1. That is what you need to make a parallel to agency as applied in a 4A context.

                    1. So, why were you denying the parallel, when it was explicitly stated?

    2. Bingo, you nailed it Dr. Ed. Zoom’s actions support Academic regimes that would like to label student speech as hate.

      So Zoom claims to do this in the name of freedom, whereas the reality is the opposite.

      Students need protection from the Universities, not visa versa.

    3. Note that using Zoom as an agent for discipline is only a problem at public schools. Private schools do not need a pretext to expel you for dissent, political incorrectness, or immorality.

      The policy is an improvement. The cancel mob at a public school has to go through channels instead of appealing directly to Zoom. Frivolous cases may be weeded out. If I moved my webcam the background would include a bookshelf with William Shirer’s classic “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. A Silicon Valley board of censors is liable to impose strict liability for the swastika on the cover. A school might recognize it as a history book. Or not, but the odds are better when both the school and Zoom have to agree.

      1. ” Private schools do not need a pretext to expel you for dissent, political incorrectness, or immorality.”

        Wrong.

        They are legally required to honor the contract they have with you.
        See: https://www.thefire.org/resources/spotlight/public-and-private-universities/

  5. Zoom should be treated *exactly* like a telephone company. There’s no excuse for any other treatment.

    1. Jordan,
      There is no sense in which Zoom is anything close to a monoploy.
      Many alternatives exist in the workplace: Bluejeans, Webex, GoToMeeting, Skype for Business.
      Moreover, they are in the position such that they can be sued for facilitating harassment unless indemnified by their customers.

      1. The firm I work at and the school I adjunct for have Google Meet.

    2. Wireline telephone companies are treated like telephone companies because they’re natural monopolies.

      Even cellular telephone companies aren’t treated like wireline telephone companies, and they’re using finite resources that limit the amount of competition available.

      The videoconferencing market, on the other hand, is chock full of rivals and there’s very little barrier to entry. Zoom itself wasn’t a major player in the space five years ago.

      1. Zoom itself wasn’t a major player in the space five years ago.

        It’s not even the best product in the space…just one of the simpler and cheaper ones….which is why it got so popular during the pandemic. Free product for video chats and a whole slew of people quarantining….it was the perfect storm for Zoom, but nothing that can’t be overtaken by any of the many competitors..

      2. The cell phone companies should be so regulated as well. What are there, four of them?

  6. There’s no telephone monopolies any more. Landline service might be a monopoly, but there’s rarely a reason for anybody to depend on landline service.

    Can telephone companies be sued for their content?

    Zoom should be treated exactly like a telephone company, and that includes that they should not be held responsible for the content that they carry.

    1. ISPs are a better parallel to telephone companies than an application like Zoom.

      1. This times a thousand.

    2. Landline is no longer a monopoly in markets where the CATV franchisee also offers voice (VOIP, I believe, but converts to POTS).

  7. I’ve never seen so many conservatives and libertarians advocating for some common carrier regulations.

    I feel like I’ve passed through the looking glass.

    If anyone should be a common carrier, it’s the ISP — NOT the apps that use the internet??

    If you don’t like Zoom’s policies, you can switch to Google Meet, Microsoft Teams,MS Skype, Cisco Webex and many many many more….

    On the one hand it’s nice that so many have moved passed the idiotic reflex of “regulation = bad!!!!!” on the other it would be nice if these people understood what the fuck they are talking about.

    1. It’s like free trade or zoning or love of the police, the Orange Leader commands, the Right obeys. Remember how the GOP didn’t even bother to come up with a platform the last time around? He alone can save them.

    2. I’ve never seen so many liberals and progressives advocating for the big corporations.

      I feel like I’ve passed through the looking glass.

      1. Liberals are not anti-big corporations; we are not cartoons.

        Antitrust, campaign finance, taxing policy, yeah.

        But we also like markets, when properly deployed. There is no hypocrisy in a liberal thinking we shouldn’t nationalize Zoom.

        But conservatives and libertarians absolutely brand themselves as anti-government. And this flip is absolutely hypocrisy.

    3. Yeah, well, now that all of corporate America is firmly on the side of the “woke” left, expect more of this from us. We’re not going to sit back while corporations try to roughshod over us with their quasi-monopolies.

  8. “one thinks that Zoom should also take a more hands-off approach (such as that mandated for phone companies, UPS and FedEx, and other such common carriers)”

    That government ain’t gonna expand itself! Noses to the grindstone in the name of Dear Orange Leader conservative comrades!

  9. ISPs, Zoom, and phone companies are all in the same business: carrying real-time communications from one customer to another. There should be two choices: either they are responsible for the content, or they are not responsible for the content. I don’t think we *want* Zoom, your ISP, and the phone companies taking responsibility for your communications.

    Whether this is “more regulation” or “less regulation”, shrug. It’s mandating that they keep their mitts off of their customers communications, which is more regulation. On the other hand, if you *require* them to police their customers’ communications, that too is more regulation. It’s a balance: if you keep your nose out of your customers’ communications, then we won’t hold you responsible for it.

    The simplest demonstration that Zoom is in the same business as telephone companies is that essentially all of the business communications that I used to conduct over the phone is now conducted over Zoom.

    1. All of the places people used to ride their horses they now go by car, but that doesn’t mean that we should require car drivers to carry pooper scoopers or inspect their vehicles for diseases.

    2. Why is real time so important? Why would, say, book publishers or billboard publishers be so different?

  10. Best Libertarian blog ever.

  11. I worry about the “legal or regulatory risk” exception. This is big enough to drive the proverbial truck through. Zoom already has censored meetings about China on the grounds that it had to follow “local law” (the Chinese government didn’t like the content). (See, e.g., https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1321908310120009730.html)

    I don’t see how this new policy would change any of that.

    1. Isn’t that more of a law problem than a Zoom problem?

      I may think drugs should be legal, but I might not allow you to bring them to a party I host if I’m worried that I’ll get in trouble for that.

      If you’re advocating changes to the law, in China or wherever, to allow for more freedom of speech then I’m with you.

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