Zoom pulls back from blocking controversial academic talks

Video platform made powerful by pandemic agrees to largely let universities police content

April 15, 2021
A computer running Zoom
Source: iStock

The video communications platform Zoom, which has amassed record profits and influence during the pandemic, has backed off a policy of blocking academic discussions it deems politically sensitive.

Zoom, the California-based provider of online networking services, attracted criticism across higher education last year after it refused to let its service be used for academic talks by Palestinian activist Leila Khaled.

Ms Khaled is a member of a group that the US and several other Western nations officially regard as a terrorist organisation, and Zoom said it feared violating federal law by allowing her to use its platform.

Numerous academic groups protested, accusing Zoom of censoring a politically controversial figure and using a transparently inflated excuse to justify an action with major consequences given Zoom’s central role in facilitating global communications during the Covid crisis.

After pushing back for months, Zoom has now posted a statement to its site promising that it will largely leave content moderation issues to universities.

“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,” the company said in its statement.

Zoom officials did not respond to requests for further comment. But advocates for free speech in academia wrote assessments calling it a positive move, even if all the details of Zoom’s new approach were not yet clear.

“The policy may not be perfect, but it does appear to mark a significant advance,” said Hank Reichman, emeritus professor of history at California State University, East Bay, who chairs the committee on academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors.

Remaining concerns, said Brian Soucek, professor of law at the University of California, Davis, included the need for the government to define exactly what constitutes material support for a terrorist group.

“This policy doesn’t solve all our academic freedom worries about Zoom,” Professor Soucek said on Twitter. “But it is a huge step nonetheless.”

Zoom has been getting castigated by faculty at several universities – including New York University and San Francisco State University – for blocking a series of scheduled events with Ms Khaled organised by their campuses and by other institutions in the US and the UK.

As a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who participated in two airline hijackings in 1969 and 1970, Ms Khaled is a particularly controversial figure in the US. But Zoom also was accused of acting at the request of the Chinese government to block events commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Some free speech advocates acknowledged that Zoom had reason to treat Ms Khaled with caution, but they also noted that no US court has ruled that letting a member of a terrorist group participate in an academic forum was equivalent to supporting terrorism.

Zoom is among a number of major social media companies that have struggled, in a period of deep partisan divides in the US, to define what it should allow and what it should censor on its platform.

It has not, however, struggled to amass influence and make money. The company has become a cultural touchstone and a fundamental tool in education, and it recently reported a pre-tax profit for 2020 of $660 million (£480 million), up from just $16 million the previous year.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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