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Zoom Censorship of Palestine Seminars Sparks Fight Over Academic Freedom


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Source: The Intercept

Few companies have benefited from the coronavirus pandemic as much as Zoom, the online conferencing platform that has become a ubiquitous substitute for in-person interaction, work, and school. But a fight over Zoom’s right to censor speech is now brewing across the academic world, after the company shut down a seminar at San Francisco State University earlier this year over the participation of Palestinian activist Leila Khaled. Last month, Zoom continued its crackdown and canceled several online events organized at other universities that did not include Khaled herself but were critical of Zoom’s censorship of her.

Khaled, 76, is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a resistance group and political party that the U.S. government lists as a foreign terrorist organization. She rose to prominence after her role in two plane hijackings in 1969 and 1970 — and as the first woman to hijack a plane she has since earned global recognition, regarded as a terrorist by some and a feminist icon by others. On September 23, Khaled, who has long spoken in solidarity with liberation movements worldwide, was one of several speakers set to participate in a seminar on gender and resistance narratives at SFSU, a public university. But the seminar became the target of a coordinated campaign by pro-Israel groups, which pressured both the university and Zoom to cancel it.

In response to the pressure, Zoom argued to SFSU officials that the seminar might have violated federal laws and therefore the company’s terms of service, by providing “material support” for terrorism. It ultimately canceled the event the day before it was scheduled to take place. Zoom’s actions were followed by Facebook, which removed the livestream link, as well as a page advertising the event, and threatened to shut down the pages of the event’s sponsors, and by YouTube, which shut down the livestream 23 minutes after the event had started. The New York Post reported last week that the U.S. Department of Education is now conducting a probe into SFSU’s invitation to Khaled, on the grounds that it “violated civil rights rules and the conditions of federal grants the university received.”

In October, Zoom also shut down three seminars organized in solidarity with SFSU at New York University, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. At least eight other seminars that were part of the same day of action were allowed to proceed on the platform, and Khaled did speak, on October 3, on another Zoom seminar that was unaffiliated with a university.

For all Zoom’s invocations of anti-terrorism laws, a spokesperson also noted that ultimately the company reserves the right to bar anyone from using its services, for any reason or none at all.

Reached by email, Zoom spokesperson Andy Duberstein wrote that anyone was welcome to use the company’s platform so long as they didn’t run afoul of “applicable U.S. export control, sanctions, and anti-terrorism laws,” but declined to explain which anti-terrorism law would have applied, nor how the SFSU event would have violated it.

“In light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise, we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event,” Duberstein wrote. But for all its invocations of anti-terrorism laws, Duberstein also noted that ultimately the company reserves the right to bar anyone from using its services, for any reason or none at all, pointing to a section of the company’s terms of service that states “Zoom may investigate any complaints and violations that come to its attention and may take any (or no) action that it believes is appropriate, including, but not limited to issuing warnings, removing the content or terminating accounts and/or User profiles.”

A spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, wrote in a statement that the company terminated the livestream “for violations of our policies on Violent Criminal Organizations.”

“Specifically, the livestream contained ‘content praising or justifying violent acts carried out by violent criminal or terrorist organizations,’” the spokesperson wrote. A spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement that the company “removed this content for violating our policy prohibiting praise, support and representation for dangerous organizations and individuals, which applies to Pages, content and Events.”

Zoom’s intervention adds a new layer to the long-running debate on university campuses over the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but its implications reach far beyond that, several scholars and free speech advocates warned. The platform’s censorship has raised questions about the role of private tech companies in curtailing academic freedom and constitutionally protected speech, particularly in the context of public universities. The incidents also reignited criticism of a controversial definition of anti-Semitism promoted by pro-Israel groups and endorsed by President Donald Trump in an executive order issued last year, which critics say severely limits all debate of Israeli policy.

At a time when the pandemic has seen much of university life move to private online platforms, many feared that Zoom’s censorship marked a slippery slope.

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