When Academic Freedom Depends on the Internet, Tech Infrastructure Companies Must Find the Courage to Remain Neutral

And universities must stand up for the rights of their faculty and students.

During the past eight months of the pandemic, we have collectively spent more time online than ever before. Many of us are working and/or learning from home, and staying in touch with friends and family through social media and other proprietary services.

Universities are no exception.  Given the risks of in-person meetings, universities are relying on online services to fulfill traditional educational functions—and not just “remote” classes, but also the critical function of providing forums for controversial speech. But while companies like Zoom are happy to take university dollars, they have refused to support one of the foundational principles of that mission: academic freedom.

In the past month, Zoom has refused to support several events, at three universities, ostensibly because one of the speakers, Leila Khaled, participated in two plane hijackings 50 years ago and is today associated with a Palestinian group—the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP—that the U.S. government has labeled a terrorist organization

It all began on September 23, 2020, when Zoom blocked a San Francisco State University online classroom event featuring Khaled and prominent activists from Black and South African liberation movements and Jewish Voice for Peace, part of a two-part series focusing on gender and sexual justice in Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian communities. Facebook and YouTube followed suit.

An uproar followed, but Zoom insisted it had simply enforced its terms of service, which includes a promise to uphold “anti-terror laws.” When an organization supporting an academic and cultural boycott of Israel called for Oct 23 online protests of this cancellation of the SFSU event, Zoom pulled service from events at New York University and the University of Hawaii as well that were also to have featured Khaled.

This follows an incident in June when Zoom canceled accounts and shut down conference calls between activists in the U.S. and China regarding the annual June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration. In that case, Zoom cited Chinese law as requiring the censorial actions.

Improper takedowns are nothing new to anyone familiar with private censorship online. But three things are particularly disturbing here.

First, Zoom is at the infrastructure layer of the Internet speech stack—like an ISP—but is choosing take on the moderation role more commonly and appropriately reserved for technologies at the user-end, like social media. In a moment when people around the world are depending on Zoom to learn, work and organize, that should be terrifying. Universities have built their entire curricula around Zoom classes and have little leverage when Zoom says, essentially, “cancel the event or we’ll cancel our contract with you.” Imagine this same event occurring in the offline world, i.e., a university theater in a building rented from a private owner, where there are few other adequate spaces available. If the owner demanded cancellation on pain of losing the lease altogether, we’d be appalled, and rightly so. In the midst of a pandemic, Zoom did the equivalent.

Infrastructure level takedowns are always worrisome. Conferencing services are just one of many types of intermediaries upon which online speech depends. Others include domain name registrars, certificate authorities (such as Let’s Encrypt), content delivery networks (CDNs), email services, and ISPs. EFF has a handy chart of some of those key links between speakers and their audience here. These infrastructure companies are ill-suited to consider and balance the consequences their decisions may have. Many have only the most tangential relationship to their users; faced with a complaint, takedown will be much easier and cheaper than a nuanced analysis of a given user’s speech. Infrastructure takedowns also represent a dramatic departure from the expectations of most users. If users have to worry about satisfying not only their host’s terms and conditions but also those of every service in the chain from speaker to audience—even though the actual speaker may not even be aware of all of those services or where they draw the line between hateful and non-hateful speech—many users will simply avoid sharing controversial opinions altogether. More broadly, infrastructure level takedowns move us further toward a thoroughly locked-down, highly monitored web, from which a speaker can be effectively ejected at any time, without any path to address concerns prior to takedown.

The firmest, most consistent, defense these potential weak links can take is to simply decline all attempts to use them as a control point. They can act to defend their role as a conduit, rather than a publisher. And just as law and custom developed a norm that we might sue a publisher for defamation, but not the owner of the building the publisher occupies, we are slowly developing norms about responsibility for content online. Companies like Zoom have an opportunity to shape those norms—for the better or for the worse.

Second, in this case, Zoom has apparently decided to adopt the major social media platforms’ erroneous approach to speech connected with groups targeted by U.S. antiterrorism laws even though no court has held that supporting such speech violated those laws (a whitepaper we co-authored last year explains the legal situation). Given who else is on the “prohibited” list—including Lebanese political party Hezbollah, which holds seats in that country’s parliament, and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has fought against terror group ISIS—that broad approach inevitably sweeps up all kinds of speech, stifling conversations, peace initiatives, and education when they are most desperately needed. Moreover, it means private companies are signing up to serve as government censors, taking action without legal process. That choice was especially egregious here, given that Khaled had not even intended to speak about her role as a member of the PFLP.

Last, but far from least, while all private censorship implicates free expression, Zoom’s decision to block this speech, in this context, is also an attack on academic freedom. Academics are up in arms about these takedowns, and rightly so. They are demanding that their universities find and use conference and webinar providers that will uphold academic freedom. These responses include multiple letters of protest and a video of faculty and students reading Khaled’s intended statement, which highlights the absurdity of treating a speech at a university as equivalent to terrorist activity. The universities in question were doing what higher education always does: providing a space for faculty, students and the public to learn about and discuss all kinds of views, including controversial opinions. As the president of the American University of University Professors put it: “Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.” Zoom shut down such a debate, and in so doing made it clear that it cannot be trusted to be a partner for higher education.

Particularly now, when so much intellectual debate depends on Internet communication, we need Internet services willing to let that debate happen. And if those service don’t exist, now would be a good time to create them—and for universities to commit to using them. University budgets are pressed more than ever, but no university dollars should go to providers that won’t support core academic values. That, in turn, could be an opportunity for service providers—offer a real alternative, and you’ll have a ready customer base.

To be clear, neither the Internet nor higher education have ever been fully free or open. But, at root, the Internet still represents and embodies an extraordinary idea: that anyone with a computing device can connect with the world, anonymously or not, to tell their story, organize, educate and learn. And academic freedom still represents an equally important idea: that “the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” These takedowns, at this time, threaten both. All of the companies involved, but especially Zoom, should be ashamed.  Other companies should take heed, and offer alternatives.

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Author: Corynne McSherry