In further news on a story I posted about in late September, it has now surfaced that Zoom has cancelled academic events scheduled to discuss its previous cancellation. Beyond the political merits of the issue, from a business standpoint I suspect that the company’s position will quickly become untenable and that if it persists in its current interpretation of its ToS its competitors will crowd it out of the academic market (already, one of the cancelled events was able to migrate to Google Meets). Telling universities to refrain from discussion is like telling a rivet factory to refrain from metalworking; the fact that in this situation it has become impossible to draw a frame around an issue, so as to modify the sociolinguistic norms that preside over it, has produced a surreal outcome: this is not an equilibrium, and is destined to change.
Interesting article by James Vincent in The Verge about a decision by Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube to shut down a university webinar over fears of disseminating opinions advocating violence “carried out by […] criminal or terrorist organizations”. The case is strategically placed at the intersection of several recent trends.
On the one hand, de-platforming as a means of struggle to express outrage at the views of an invited speaker is a tactic that has been used often, especially on college campuses, even before the beginning of the pandemic and for in-person events. However, it appears that the pressure in this specific case was brought to bear by external organizations and lobby groups, without a visible grassroots presence within the higher education institution in question, San Francisco State University. Moreover, such pressure was exerted by means of threats of legal liability not against SFSU, but rather targeting the third-party, commercial platforms enabling diffusion of the event, which was to be held as a remote-only webinar for epidemiological concerns. Therefore, the university’s decision to organize the event was thwarted not by the pressure of an in-person crowd and the risk of public disturbances, but by the choice of a separate, independent actor, imposing external limitations derived from its own Terms of Service, when faced with potential litigation.
The host losing agency to the platform is not the only story these events tell, though. It is not coincidental that the case involves the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and that the de-platformed individual was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who participated in two plane hijackings in 1969-70. The transferral of an academic discussion to an online forum short-circuited the ability academic communities have traditionally enjoyed to re-frame discussions on all topics –even dangerous, taboo, or divisive ones– as being about analyzing and discussing, not about advocating and perpetrating. At the same time, post-9/11 norms and attitudes in the US have applied a criminal lens to actions and events that in their historical context represented moves in an ideological and geopolitical struggle. Such a transformation may represent a shift in the pursuit of the United States’ national interest, but what is striking about this case is that a choice made at a geo-strategic, Great Power level produces unmediated consequences for the opinions and rights of expression of individual citizens and organizations.
This aspect in turn ties in to the debate on the legitimacy grounds of platform content moderation policies: the aspiration may well be to couch such policies in universalist terms, and even take international human rights law as a framework or a model; however, in practice common moral prescriptions against violence scale poorly from the level of individuals in civil society to that of power politics and international relations, while the content moderation norms of the platforms are immersed in a State-controlled legal setting which, far from being neutral, is decisively shaped by their ideological and strategic preferences.
Back in the Spring, digital contact tracing was heralded as the hi-tech path out of the pandemic. With the benefit of six months of hindsight, the limitations of the approach have become clear [see Schneier for a concise summing-up of its shortcomings].
While digital contact tracing’s notional benefits seem to belong squarely in the realm of security theater (i.e., showing the public that Something Is Being Done), its potential for justifying intrusive surveillance remains intact. Two recent news items illustrate this dynamic. A small liberal arts college in Michigan is forcing its students to download a contact-tracing app (and apparently a security vulnerability-riddled one, at that) as a condition for being allowed on campus. Meanwhile, the delegates to the Republican National Convention reportedly are to wear “smart badges” (originally developed for tracking pallets) to record their movements through the convention venue in Charlotte. While higher education has long been a laboratory of choice for surveillance technology experimentation, I would have expected the libertarian wing of the GOP to kick up more of a fuss over this kind of intrusion.