Academics fear using Zoom to study China—even in the US

Before there was Zoom University.
Before there was Zoom University.
Image: REUTERS/Jason Reed
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Zoom, the video-conferencing platform whose popularity has been buoyed by coronavirus lockdowns worldwide, made headlines this month for admitting to censoring calls at Beijing’s request. Now professors at US universities are wondering if they should risk using Zoom to teach courses about China.

The platform disclosed that it ended three meetings commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and also suspended the accounts of US and Hong Kong-based activists organizing those events. In the wake of the outcry that followed, the platform said it was adding the ability to boot individuals from a meeting based on their location, so it could better comply with “local laws” without affecting participants outside mainland China. The platform told Quartz in a statement this capability has been implemented.

James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown who wrote an open letter last week detailing the potential threats to universities where Zoom has become the go-to platform, says faculty who focus on China on other campuses are also worried, as are students from China. A Zoom meeting, which can capture information about participants such as their IP address, faces and voices, generates “a lot of very rich data, of great interest to authoritarian governments, and if we can’t trust Zoom, then we can’t use the platform,” he said. 

One overriding fear: that students from China could draw scrutiny for the kinds of online classes they take.

“Note that the recent account cancellations were based on knowledge of whom the hosts of the meetings were,” said  Millward. “…my students, even though they are not political—or even if they are strong supporters of the Chinese Communist Party—could get in trouble by association with me.”

Aynne Kokas, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, warned that Zoom is “allowing for local censorship to take precedence over academic freedom.” Now she’s considering that some of her online classes could put Chinese students in a “risky situation,” by assigning or discussing a reading “that might deal, for example, with a period of Chinese history that is perfectly fine to talk about in a US classroom, but might be a very profoundly difficult thing for a Chinese student in China.”

“Any meeting can turn sensitive” from the perspective of the Chinese authorities, said Kokas.

With classes set to resume for the fall semester in August, even as coronavirus travel restrictions to the US remain in place, Millward said Chinese students enrolled in US universities but stuck in China could find themselves blocked from classes they have paid to attend, or face account suspensions, similar to what happened with the activists.

“We would not contract with a food-service provider if they said, ‘Oh, sometimes we will refuse to feed some of your students, for example the Chinese ones, if a third party tells us to,’” said Millward. “Obviously this [risk] alone makes Zoom inviable for US universities to use.”

Zoom declined to comment when asked whether they would remove a student in China from an online class meeting if requested to do so by the Chinese government. However it told Quartz that it is designed so that “only minimal information is collected and, unless a meeting is recorded by the host, the video, audio, and chat content is not stored.” It has also announced that it will give end-to-end encryption for all users, backtracking on a previous decision not to do so for free users.

It’s “nearly impossible” to abandon Zoom

With US schools forced to suddenly adopt online teaching due to the coronavirus outbreak, the platform has become so ubiquitous that some students joke that they attend  “Zoom University“—there is even“universitymerchandise on Amazon.

Yet even before the controversy surrounding the suspension of the activists’ accounts, some universities and governments, including the administration in Taiwan, had already banned official use of the platform. The restrictions were due to security concerns over its encryption, but as with other new globally popular platforms with ties to China, its links to the country have added to the suspicion. Zoom has a significant workforce in China to develop software, and had routed some encryption keys through servers in the country, even for calls unconnected to the country.

Millward is urging universities to develop a “Plan B” for online teaching, because “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.”

But despite the existence of other free and paid platforms—Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet, for example—it’s not so easy. Zoom is really simple to use, and many online courses have already been set up around it—it is also among the few foreign services not to be blocked by the firewall. 

“…We are very quickly getting to the point where it will be very, very difficult to make a change,” said Kakos. “And if it doesn’t happen before the fall semester, then it will be nearly impossible to do.” 

US universities haven’t yet updated their guidance on using Zoom to address the risk of censorship of classes or of students by location. Millwards’ university, Georgetown, and Harvard, which offers some guidance on protecting student privacy when recording Zoom classes, didn’t immediately respond to Quartz’s questions about how they will address these concerns.

Alternatives to Zoom, which had 300 million daily meeting participants as of April, have their own strengths and drawbacks.

“While Zoom is perhaps the most prominent platform for teleconferencing at the moment, any other such platform would bring many of the same risks: comments by professors and students alike can be captured, maliciously edited, and shared online, for instance,” said Eric Hundman, an assistant professor of political science in NYU Shanghai, a collaboration between New York University and East China Normal University. “Rather than prohibiting Zoom, I would suggest allowing professors substantial flexibility to design their courses as they see fit.”

In China, meanwhile, Zoom has become a vital tool for liberal Chinese to communicate with one another, and the outside world, said Dong Wuyuan, a Melbourne-based pro-democracy Chinese activist, adding that many of her friends back in China are still holding important forums on topics like women’s rights on the platform. The company suspended new registrations for individual users in China last month, however, and this month’s revelations may lead to some existing users in the mainland pulling back from Zoom—though it’s not clear where they can meet online instead.

“For those inside the wall, there is no better alternative to Zoom,” said Dong.