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The Rise, Reign, and Self-Repair of Zoom

David Jelke

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The deceptively named “Ask Eric Anything” weekly webinar is more of a corporate team effort that resembles The Brady Bunch than a lone Thermopylae-like press conference

May 8, 2020 – Eric Yuan came up with the idea for Zoom as a student while taking 10-hour train rides to visit his girlfriend in China. In 2011 he left Cisco Webex to found Zoom in San Jose, California, with the mission “to make video communications frictionless.” Zoom earned a billion-dollar valuation by 2017 and went public in 2019 in one of the most successful IPOs of that year.

And then the coronavirus appeared in Zoom’s waiting room, and it was not to be ejected from the chat.

As Americans have entered a world riddled with tele-prefixes, Zoom, whether it has wanted to or not, has entered the pantheon of Tide and Alexa to become a household name. By April 1, the number of Zoom’s daily participants skyrocketed from 10 million in 2019 to 200 million.

Indeed, Zoom became overnight king of an increasingly-important industry thrust into new prominence by the pandemic: Videoconferencing.

As hundreds of millions of Americans and billions of global citizens adjust to new norms for work, medicine, and education, Zoom has emerged as the go-to application, cutting commute times to zero.

What is Zoom and what propelled it to widespread name recognition? It’s not Webex

The most likely answer to what propelled Zoom to prominence comes from its mission statement— “to make video communications frictionless.”

Rachna Sizemore Heizer, a member at large of the Fairfax County Public Schools Board, highlighted simplicity as an advantage in her initial decision to use Zoom for her school board meetings. “It’s easier to understand if you’re new to the stuff,” Heizer said.

Cynthia Jelke, 18, a sophomore at Tufts University, found Zoom essential to her success. “I genuinely wouldn’t be able to do my education without it,” Jelke said.

Even the Federal Communications Commission, the agency tasked with improving communications, drew criticism on Tuesday for using Cisco Webex video conferencing technology to launch its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction webinar.

The web seminar designed to teach applicants how to apply for for more than $20 billion worth of funds ended up turning away business and media leaders due to a clunky audio-capacity limitations.

Commentators in the chat box complained in real time of the frustrations they faced. User “Natee” chirped at 4:10 p.m. on that webinar: “Webex is no good.  That is why the original Webex developer created Zoom.”

Workplaces and schools have taken to Zoom

The workforce has also taken quickly to the interface. Patrick McGrath, a software engineer from Chicago, praised Zoom for its Whiteboarding feature, which allows users to sketch concepts in a creative and expressive way. “It allows for collaboration,” McGrath said in an interview with Broadband Breakfast.

Then there are the memes. Perhaps because Zoom resonated with teenagers, many of whom have had to use Zoom for school, it has become an endless generator for viral content and a hub for consolidating a shared experience.

Students from different colleges started saying that they all attend “Zoom University.” Zoom University T-shirt vendors began popping up online.

Zoom has been an endless source of inspiration for meme artists

 

Zoom also offers the option to easily customize one’s background without a green screen, adding a touch of personalization that is reminiscent of social media.

The videoconferencing service has a “hotter brand” than other teleconferencing companies, Rishi Jaluria, a senior research analyst at D.A. Davidson told The New York Times. “Younger people don’t want to use the older technology.”

Joshua Rush, 18, a high school senior in Los Angeles, told the Times: “Out of nowhere, I feel like Zoom has clout.”

The memes “help lighten to mood of being kicked out of your school,” Tufts sophomore Jelke told Broadband Breakfast.

If there was any doubt that Zoom had chiseled a frieze in the pantheon of pop culture, Saturday Night Live’s first virtual episode put that skepticism to rest.

“Live from Zoom, it’s Saturday Night Live,” announced the cast of SNL, who used Zoom for large swaths of its episode on April 11.

Tom Hanks, the host of the episode and a popular coronavirus survivor, had fun with the monologue, using video cuts and costumes to play different characters. The episode featured many playful jabs at the ubiquitous platform, and one sketch dedicated to Zoom profiled common videoconferencing personalities.

OK, so why is Zoom suffering?

Zoom Sales Leader Colby Nish with company logo in the back: “Delivering happiness”

Almost as quickly as “Zoom” has become a verb, “Zoombombing” has entered the national lexicon. Zoombombing occurs when a Zoom meeting host or attendee leaves the join URL unattended, which, in the world of the internet, can happen many different ways.

A prankster can then use this neglected link to crash a meeting and broadcast improper material, such as pornography or racist content. The FBI issued a warning about Zoombombing on March 30 — but that hasn’t curbed the rise of this new breed of troll.

The Anti-Defamation League has already documented 21 instances (as of April 6) of anti-Semitic Zoombombing at the levels of government, school and worship.

Journalists Kara Swisher of The New York Times and Jessica Lenin of The Information were forced to shut down their Zoom webinar on feminism in tech on March 15, when trolls broke into their meeting and began broadcasting a shock video. A meeting of the Indiana Election Commission was interrupted by a video of a man masturbating.

The graphic examples don’t stop there:

When McGrath, the software engineer from Chicago, discussed the issue of security, he responded “we have a definite team to take care of that… It’s totally because of the security concerns that have been going around.”

From Zoombombing to… other privacy and security concerns

Then there’s the issue of privacy.

As early as March 26, Vice reported that it had uncovered that Zoom had been sharing its users’ data with Facebook without their knowledge.

Data being shared included when the user opens the app, details on the user’s device such as the model, the time zone and city the user is connecting from, which phone carrier the user is using, and information that allows third-party companies to target a user with advertisements.

“That’s shocking. There is nothing in the privacy policy that addresses that,” Pat Walshe, an activist from Privacy Matters who has analyzed Zoom’s privacy policy, said in a Twitter direct message with Vice.

And then there’s the issue of the Chinese server.

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab published a report showing that some Zoom user data is accessible by the company’s server in China, “even when all meeting participants, and the Zoom subscriber’s company, are outside of China,” the authors of the report wrote.

The Toronto lab also noted that Zoom’s arrangement of owning three Chinese-based companies and employing 700 Chinese mainland software developers “may make Zoom responsive to pressure from Chinese authorities.”  These vulnerabilities give the Chinese government a way to tap in to Zoom phone calls said Bill Marczak, a research fellow at Citizen Lab.

Zoom’s claim to offer end-to-end encryption was scrutinized by The Intercept and found to be wrong. The company was forced to backtrack and apologize in a blog post by Oded Gal, Zoom’s chief product officer:

“In light of recent interest in our encryption practices, we want to start by apologizing for the confusion we have caused by incorrectly suggesting that Zoom meetings were capable of using end-to-end encryption…. While we never intended to deceive any of our customers, we recognize that there is a discrepancy between the commonly accepted definition of end-to-end encryption and how we were using it. This blog is intended to rectify that discrepancy and clarify exactly how we encrypt the content that moves across our network.”

The Attorney General of New York sent a letter to the company asking questions regarding its privacy shortcomings that allow Zoombombing and questioned its murky agreement with Facebook. That was just one of 26 letters the Zoom office has received from state attorney generals.

The problems keep coming. Some entities are dropping Zoom. Elon Musk banned SpaceX from using Zoom. Taiwan has banned it. Germany has restricted its usage.

A shareholder for Zoom is suing the company for overstating its encryption capabilities. Even local school districts, such as the Fairfax County Public Schools, have deemed the technology unsafe, and are experimenting with alternatives.

The Era of Self-Repair

Days after Vice’s report, Zoom changed codes that had shared user data with Facebook.

Zoom began allowing users to deactivate the Chinese server. By April 25, any user that had not expressly kept their data on the Chinese server was to be automatically removed from its data route.

Such an “opt-in” approach to data sharing is rare in the world of privacy.

And Zoom has been highly communicative about its blunders. Yuan has posted blogs repeatedly on his website updating users about security and new, common-sense features such as making security settings more prominent and reporting users.

He has also used his blogs to draw attention to the tools that have always existed for dealing with trolls, such as good cyber hygiene and tutorials for using the Zoom Waiting Room to vet join requests.

You can ask Zoom anything, as long as it’s on Zoom

Most notably, Zoom is hosting a series of weekly webinars since April 8 with Yuan himself, called “Ask Eric Anything.” He’s made himself as available as a CEO can be.

At one of the first of these webcasts, the majority of questions revolved around interface and troubleshooting, but some addressed security concerns.

For “the next 90 days,” Zoom will be “incredibly focused on enhancing our privacy and security,” promised Yuan.

See “Zoom CEO Eric Yuan Pledges to Address Security Shortcomings in ‘The Next 90 Days’,” Broadband Breakfast, April 20, 2020.

In fact, Zoom has branded itself around “The Next 90 Days,” where it has committed to focusing itself on solely privacy-related challenges.

Asked about the specifics of its efforts by Broadband Breakfast, a Zoom spokesperson said, “Together, I have no doubt we will make Zoom synonymous with safety and security.”

Zoom’s has also had a slew of conspicuous hires: Katie Moussouris, a cybersecurity expert who debugged Microsoft and the Pentagon; Leah Kissner, Google’s former head of privacy; and Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and Facebook’s former chief security officer.

During Stamos’ time at Facebook, he advocated greater disclosure around Russian interference on Facebook during the 2016 election. His insistence that Facebook do more created internal disagreements that eventually led to his departure.

“To successfully scale a video-heavy platform to such a size, with no appreciable downtime and in the space of weeks,” Stamos said in a blog post explaining his decision to temporarily leave Stanford and join Zoom, “is literally unprecedented in the history of the internet.”

He described the challenge as “too interesting to pass up.”

In the end, the problem that Zoom has faced isn’t specific to Zoom, but a human problem. The real challenge, as Stamos said, “is how to empower one’s customers without empowering those who wish to abuse them.”

Big Tech

Government’s Reactive Nature Hobbling Tech Regulation, Expert Says

Congress may need another big tech breach to move earnestly on regulation, says consultant.

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of Steve Haro at FiscalNote event

April 12, 2021 – The reactive nature of Congress to data crises means another breach of citizens’ privacy may be needed to spurn the next big legislative move, said a former congressional chief of staff.

“We still have questions to answer how to deal with technology dominance. We are not there yet because, unfortunately, Congress, for the most part, tends to act in response to crisis,” said Steve Haro, who is currently a government affairs consultant and was a former assistant secretary of commerce.

During a discussion sponsored by FiscalNote and CQ Rollcall, experts joined in a conversation on the current state of public policy for the tech industry and how influential Congress and the Biden-Harris admission will be on dealing with big tech.

Among the discussed issues was how the government will deal with intermediary liability provision Section 230.

Lawmakers have wondered whether the provision — which protects platforms from legal liability for posts by their users — offers too much protection to social networks when it comes to content moderation and disinformation. This central premise has spurned calls for a reform of Section 230; a number of Democrats have proposed their own bill to keep much of the protections except for paid posts.

“I do not believe 230 needs change, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns,” Haro said. “I believe there is collective agreement this is still a necessary law, and it has worked. It has allowed the internet to build do what has become, good or bad.”

Haro pointed to the congressional hearings into Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal three years ago, which saw the scraping of millions of user accounts without their consent. The result did not see substantial progress on regulations. “We might need another crisis to spur Congress into action,” Haro said.

Michael Drobac, principal at the law firm Dentons, said “we are not there, and I would say the thing that has been most present and clear is that in most of these hearings” the members of Congress are still trying to understand the technology to make a meaningful impact.

“The reality is that section 230 is as important today as it was when it was passed,” Haro said.

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Big Tech

Regulatory Commission Needed To Monitor Big Tech Collection Of Consumer Data, Professor Says

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot of Robin Gaster from Henry George School of Social Science

April 8, 2021 — There needs to be a digital regulatory commission created to ensure big tech cannot run wild with consumer data, said Robin Gaster, a George Washington University public policy scholar.

Gaster, who’s also president of Incumetrics, a data and program evaluation consultancy, published a book that was released this month about Amazon’s rise from an online bookstore to everything else.

Gaster sat down with Broadband Breakfast on Wednesday and talked about the e-commerce giant’s reach into industries like healthcare and its rapid collection of more consumer data. The solution, he proposes, is creating a “new digital deal,” which would see a sort-of digital Federal Communications Commission — an entity which has the resources and the person power to match Amazon’s growing force.

Amazon’s reach into health care needs to be met with proper oversight and ethics to ensure it really will protect consumer privacy, he said.

The e-commerce behemoth acquired PillPack, a prescription delivery company, developed the Amazon Halo, a competitor device to Fitbit, and launched Amazon Care, a telehealth app service. Add Amazon’s own Alexa AI platform into the mix and it has a stream of access to valuable data.

“I would absolutely imagine that five years from now, if you sprain your knee, you probably will not go on the Internet and look for things and trying to figure it out. You will say, ‘Alexa,’ I sprained my knee. What should I do?” said Gaster.

Amazon’s breakneck growth into healthcare is concerning because no one knows exactly what could or intends to do with all the data it possesses, Gaster said. With so much aggregated data across its products and services, Amazon needs to be held accountable for its actions so that if something goes wrong, there are ways to fix it that are open and trustworthy.

Gaster said governments and companies alike are playing “privacy theater” – they talk about protecting privacy, but it’s a mere performance put on to make it seem like they care about it, he said.

Alexa takes in all sorts of data from voice-commands and people’s Amazon accounts. It may as well be a virtual doctor someday, but people don’t know how or if they can control their data recorded by Alexa, Gaster said.

The notion that people can control their data is ridiculous, said Gaster. “We are walking across the digital plane naked. We have no clothes!” he said, adding no one can wade through the legalese in the terms and conditions and privacy statements.

Gaster’s book is entitled Behemoth – Amazon Rising: Power and Seduction in the Age of Amazon.

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Courts

Supreme Court Declares Trump First Amendment Case Moot, But Legal Issues For Social Media Coming

Benjamin Kahn

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Photo of Justice Clarence Thomas in April 2017 by Preston Keres in the public domain

April 5, 2021—Despite accepting a petition that avoids the Supreme Court deliberating on whether a president can block social media users, Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday issued a volley that may foreshadow future legal issues surrounding social media in the United States.

On Monday, the Supreme Court sent back to a lower court and ruled as moot a lawsuit over whether former President Donald Trump could block followers on Twitter, after accepting a petition by the federal government to end the case because Trump wasn’t president anymore.

The case dates back to March 2018, when the Knight First Amendment Institute and others brought a case against former president Trump in the Southern District of New York for blocking users based on their political views, arguing the practice is a violation of the first amendment.

The lower court judge agreed, and the decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals.

In accepting the petition by the government, Justice Thomas stated that adjudicating legal issues surrounding digital platforms is uniquely difficult. “Applying old doctrines to new digital platforms is rarely straightforward,” he wrote. The case in question hinged on the constitutionality of then-President Trump banning people from interacting with his Twitter account, which the plaintiff argued was a protected public forum.

Thomas stated that while today’s conclusion was able to be vacated, that likely would not be the case in the future. He went on to say that digital platforms exercise “concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties.”

He continued: “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.”

Even though Facebook and Google were not the platforms in question in this case, Thomas pointed to them as “dominant digital platforms” and stated that they have “enormous control over speech.” He stated that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have the capabilities to suppress information and speech at will, and referenced the “cataclysmic consequences” for authors that Amazon disagrees with.

Thomas also rejected the notion that other options exist.

“A person always could choose to avoid the toll bridge or train and instead swim the Charles River or hike the Oregon Trail. But in assessing whether a company exercises substantial market power, what matters is whether the alternatives are comparable.”

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