The Evolution of Zoom as a Communication Platform during the Pandemic: At a rate of knots

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August 25, 2020

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By Dr Jaspal Kaur Sadhu Singh

Readers may be familiar with the idiom “at a rate of knots”. This aptly describes the pace in which a video conferencing platform evolved into a vital tool of expression,communication, and to China, a tool for dissidence and assembly. When we have truly emerged victorious in managing the pandemic and when we have reverted to the “old” normal, if ever such a time will ensue, we will reminisce about the pandemic as the ubiquitous age of Zoom. As I write this, a new ailment has been discovered – Zoom fatigue, and in the context of platform governance – Zoom censorship, since in a manner of speaking, Zoom’s evolution from a video conferencing platform into a lifeline for the continued survival of businesses, educational institutions, and communities during the pandemic has been phenomenal. With an astronomical spike in users and its domination as a video-chat app, the effusiveness turned to disdain when Zoom blocked three accounts of activists in the US and Hong Kong on the back of requests made by China. The accounts were to facilitate the commemoration of the 4th June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown anniversary. Although the accounts were restored, the action on the part of Zoom did not go unnoticed. With claims that it was merely complying with local laws, the move has highlighted the struggle between communication platforms and governments in balancing countervailing interests of free speech and state control of opposing voices. Zoom rather swiftly paid the price of growing into a global communication giant beyond its familiar experience of being merely a video conferencing platform by transforming into a medium for assembly and speech.

To ensure that it continues to respect national laws, it introduced a blocking feature based on geographical location. China and tyrannical states will be pleased to hear this news in order to silence dissent, discourse and assembly. It is undeniable, as Zoom itself claims, that it is not in the business of changing national laws of states that oppose free speech. Whilst Zoom may take its comforts where it can, it cannot ignore the fact that this will not be the first time it will have to decide which government it will submit to and in response, the stentorian vitriol it will attract for doing so. The latter resulted in Zoom dovetailing, aligning itself with the position taken by other communication platforms to pause the processing of data requests for user information made by the Hong Kong SAR following the enactment and implementation of the controversial security law in July 2020, claiming that it “supports the free and open exchange of thoughts and ideas”.

In comparison to other platforms, particularly social media and messaging platforms owned by tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, Zoom is a neophyte to platform governance. Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and other content platforms has evidenced the rise of these communication platforms acting as tools for freedoms, representing the Fifth Estate, and acting as platforms for democratic discourse. This is particularly seen in terms of how citizens are engaging with each other and the world in the realm of socio-political discourse. The initial euphoria surrounding these platforms as advocates of freedom of expression and speech for individuals, communities, and civil society has been replaced with dysphoria of the hegemony these platforms possess in gatekeeping content and speech. The gatekeeping is as a result of a filtering and moderating process guided by internal policies known as community guidelines which have the effect of censoring information, news and commentary.

In terms of internal policies imposed on users, their impact may impinge on speech and expression, and in the case of Zoom, on the assembly of people. There are instances where these policies have been enforced by platform administrators in cases of violations either as a result of moderation or reports from other users. In a sense, the exercise of enforcement of these guidelines creates bottlenecks and choke-points for the dissemination of information, expression, and speech. The arduous task facing administrators when moderating content and users’ activities is further exacerbated when they have to take cognizance of competing interests of speakers and the global community – a rather complex situation which cuts across differing value systems, cultures, laws and the added pressure from governments for these platforms to accommodate their requests.

Community standards or guidelines that form part of the terms of use of these platforms are rationalised on the grounds that a degree of accountability and
responsibility is imposed on users to uphold a set of values determined by the said platforms to preserve a degree of civility by a process that involves other users reporting violations, moderation by the administrators of the platforms, and possible action of suspension or blocking of accounts. The additional dimension of this accountability and responsibility to the “requests” of governments appear to be an equally worrying situation when communication platforms are seen as pandering to states.

Whilst commentators may argue that the use of these guidelines has resulted in a plethora of incidents which appear to result in a form of unilateral censorship, there is no denying the fact that balancing the interests of governments, citizens, free speech advocates, and Internet content providers would present a challenging and complex conundrum. Whilst communication platforms face a herculean task, these platforms expect their actions to come under global scrutiny. Facebook, for instance, has been held accountable in recent years for allowing misinformation to flourish on its platform and has had to face constant scrutiny on the effectiveness of its algorithms in filtering and controlling misinformation. A recent ad boycott of Facebook for failing to combat hate speech demonstrates the constant pressure that communication platforms are confronted with and are held to account by an extremely high standard of answerability. This type of backlash on indiscretions results in continued tweaks of policies and community guidelines.

The gestation of communication platforms from providers of space for socialising and networking to tools of speech and assembly have resulted in their transformation into “guardians” of speech with the enhanced role as gatekeepers. To ensure a healthy marketplace of ideas and a functioning public sphere, these platforms are mindful that their evolved role as the Fifth Estate is not to be taken lightly and that the exercise of balancing opposing interests is a delicate one.

As Zoom accedes to the altar of the great tech-giants that control communication platforms who made exorbitant profits at the back of the pandemic, it will learn that its rise at the rate of knots will see its unpredictable metamorphosis from a tool to convene meetings to its progeny as a space for assembly of causes that may not ingratiate tyrannical states. In the realm of platform governance, Zoom’s indiscretions will be unprecedented lessons for the novice.

18 August 2020

Dr Jaspal Kaur is a member of the Executive Committee of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST). She is also a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law & Government, HELP University, Kuala Lumpur.