Zoom announced a policy change this week that gives colleges and universities more control over the virtual events that they host on the video conferencing platform.
Under the new policy, Zoom's moderators will only act on reports alleging violations of the company's terms of service or community standards that come from the meeting's host or the account's owners and administrator, except in select cases.
Colleges and higher education groups have been pressing Zoom to make the change, arguing that the company's policies threatened academic freedom and First Amendment rights.
Calls for Zoom to change its policies came after the company canceled a virtual event last fall hosted by San Francisco State University. The company said the seminar may have breached its terms of service and federal law because it featured Leila Khaled, a member of a group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. YouTube and Facebook also shut down the event.
In a campuswide message, San Francisco State President Lynn Mahoney refuted that the virtual discussion would have violated Zoom's rules or the law but recognized that the private company could set its own terms.
The event exposed a broader problem, said Brian Soucek, a law professor at the University of California, Davis.
"In this world where our entire university operations have moved on to Zoom, basically, we were subjecting ourselves to the terms of service of a private company," he said. "Zoom has every right to decide what kind of content it wants to host, but we as a public university can't censor content in that way."
Several universities set up virtual events in the weeks following the incident to show solidarity with San Francisco State, three of which Zoom also shut down, including at New York University and the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, The Intercept reported.
Those actions sparked the American Association of University Professors, a faculty advocacy group, to call on New York University's president to condemn Zoom's censorship of the events. And the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter co-signed by AAUP to Zoom, Facebook and YouTube, criticizing the companies for censoring the Khaled event and calling on them to better protect freedom of speech.
Zoom's policy change answers some of those calls. However, the company said it will stop an event if it poses a legal or regulatory risk to Zoom, if a report alleges an immediate threat to someone's safety, or if a meeting hosted by an institution is unrelated to its academic or operations.
Soucek, who chairs the University of California System's academic freedom committee, hopes the new policy will herald changes at other companies. "Our hope was that we can use this progress with Zoom as a model for rethinking policies to other providers that we work with," he said.