Open letter to US (and other) universities in light of Zoom’s revelations about collaborating with the Chinese Communist Party

James Millward, 15 June 2020

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Dear colleagues,

Back in late March and April as we were all getting used to Zoom, some privacy concerns emerged that I wrote to some of you about. Zoom’s CEO, Eric Yuan, addressed them surprisingly quickly and transparently, and our concerns were somewhat relieved.

Since then, though, there have been several more developments that have caused concerns among faculty and others. Zoom admitted that calls and user data had been “mistakenly routed through China”. In a conference call, Eric Yuan declared that his company would not offer its new end-to-end encryption to free users, because the company wanted to work with the FBI and law enforcement — this at the very moment when law enforcement was aggressively attacking mainly peaceful BLM protesters around the US. The announcement did not go over well, and elicited at least one call from a faculty colleague for us to divest from Zoom as well as online outcry on Twitter and elsewhere.

Most recently, and of most concern to us, it has been revealed that Zoom has shut down zoom meetings and cancelled accounts of those who wanted to discuss or commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre or call for Hong Kong autonomy. In its corporate response to these revelations, the company admitted that it did so at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party. Without specifying which statute it specifically complying with, Zoom has cited “need to comply with local law” as its justification for shutting down meetings and cancelling accounts — even meetings and accounts based in the US. If Chinese local law dictates shutting down accounts and meetings in the US based on content, in Zoom’s interpretation, then our faculty and classrooms could be subject to precisely this same kind of corporate pressure and punishment.

Clearly, these are worrisome developments, and this is a company or at least a CEO with a tin-ear and slow learning curve. Just in terms of the principle of academic freedom, the policy that Zoom has just announced really makes university collaboration with the company impossible — we should not work with a company that justifies censorship.

But leaving aside principle for a minute, and just thinking practically, a university faces potentially serious issues if it is all-in with Zoom. I should say I like Zoom, more or less — it’s easy to use, most faculty learned it pretty quickly, it’s arguably been a life-saver this past semester during coronavirus quarantine. Gen-Z are now even being called Zoomers — it’s iconic software for our era, and “to Zoom” has become a generic verb. But I foresee a couple immediate issues and possible scenarios that could make Zoom go Boom:

  1. Many Chinese students enrolled in US universities are now stuck in China because of visa, airfare costs or other issues. It seems very likely that Chinese and other foreign students won’t be able to make it to US or other foreign campuses in time for the beginning of fall semester, even if we are holding in-person classes. We are all discussing various work-arounds, such as time-zone friendly tutorials, recorded classes, and so on. All of these involve Zoom, and all of them depend on Zoom’s availability in China. We should think, too, why Zoom remains available in China while similar platforms are not. The company’s cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party must be one reason for this, as any unblinkered consideration will recognize. It’s not, as Paul Mozur wrote in the New York Times, because in the cat and mouse game of internet controls in the PRC, the cat has not yet caught up with the mouse and activists found a loophole via “new technology.” We have to be realistic about this.
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2) The safety of our Chinese students, whether in China or elsewhere, must be of prime concern. Zoom claims that it did not share user data or content of the Zoom meetings it shut down with PRC authorities, that the authorities knew about those meetings rather from social media. We need iron-clad and specific assurances about that. Can the CCP tell which in-China users are on these calls? Where are the servers that manage the calls, and who is in charge in those offices? I don’t know enough about the technology to ask the right questions here, but you see my point — if our students’ participation in our classes is known to Chinese authorities, and it seems clear that it easily could be, their academic freedom is at least chilled and they or their families’ safety potentially endangered. Unfortunately, this is not an alarmist threat — we already have many cases of in-person invigilation and intimidation of Chinese students on US, Canadian, EU and Australian campuses by CCP-friendly students and agents of the Chinese Students’ and Scholars Association. How much easier is such surveillance via a platform such as Zoom, where name, face and voice are all conveniently laid out in a matrix, and the system can record and generate automatic transcription of discussions? The threat from an information leak is an order of magnitude higher than from a text-based platform, so privacy assurances must be greater.

3) With Zoom now getting criticism from left and right in the US, it is highly likely that continued exclusive reliance on the platform could become a public relations liability for the university. Especially from the right — with Senators Cotton, Cruz, Rubio and others using the specter of Chinese spying as a way to attack the academy; with these figures and the Trump Administration calling for bans on Chinese student visas in some fields (Stephen Miller argued for a ban on all Chinese student visas) it is easy to imagine how this issue could fit multiple domestic political agendas: our universities are soft on China, Zoom is a communist keyhole into our classrooms, liberal professors harbor a Sino-cyber-viper in the bosom of academe — the talking points write themselves. Taiwan, the US Senate, the German government and the NY school system already forbid using Zoom for such reasons. Zoom could come to be lambasted, fairly or unfairly, as another Huawei.

You get my drift. If other cases crop up like the recent ones, we can well imagine this blowing up just as the Fall semester begins. Zoom could become a PR liability even as it is a pedagogical necessity.

I’m not advocating we dump Zoom. But we need to do two things urgently.

First, universities, ideally collectively, need to forcefully and publicly impress upon Zoom that if its policy is to shut down meetings and cancel accounts on the basis of prior censorship orders from the Chinese Communist Party (or the FBI or other entities), US universities cannot maintain our contracts with Zoom. They can’t straddle this issue, both because of academic freedom concerns and for the privacy and safety of faculty and students and their families. We would not contract with a food-services company that announced it would refuse to feed some of our students based on their country of origin or at the behest of a third party. Can we contract with a class-meeting service that does the same?

Second, we urgently need a Plan B — or multiple Plan Bs. There are other such platforms, both freely available and with more robust services through paid accounts: Microsoft Teams, Google Meeting, Webex, Bluejeans, Jitsi, etc. Our faculty and students need to have access to and get used to using one or more of those other than Zoom, at least for faculty teaching Chinese students and about China. Those platforms may or may not be accessible in China via VPNs — that access seems to vary by region and personal status within the PRC. But it’s very likely that Zoom is not yet banned in China precisely because it is collaborating with the CCP. So the accessibility of Zoom in China per se is a mixed blessing, if not a poisoned chalice. In any case, having a variety of options will provide helpful redundancy in case we really can’t go on using Zoom, and diversifying how we communicate with students in China (or elsewhere) will prevent Zoom from becoming one-stop-shopping for authoritarian governments seeking to intrude on our classrooms.

Jim Millward

Dept. of History. Georgetown University

Written by

James A. Millward 米華健 is professor of history at Georgetown University and mandolinist for By & By.

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