If you are doing work to address social injustices, you are
- communicating with people with widely different levels of access, voice, power, connectivity, vulnerabilities (or just poor ones)
- communicating about work that, in one way or another, challenges power and authority
- communicating about plans that could be compromised or diminished if they were to become public or known by your opposition
If you are amongst the parties organizing your team and choosing the platforms you are using to communicate, or at least in a position to speak up and suggest intentional methods or alternatives, you have a responsibility to consider options and make informed decisions. Otherwise, you are inadvertently putting yourself and others at risk and exacerbating power/voice disparities.
Of course, there will be dilemmas and tradeoffs. You may need to use the most common and accessible platform, for inclusivity. But as convener you take on the responsibility of understanding the risk and minimising it.
Towards socially just virtual work, beyond tools
Organizing virtually introduces new power dynamics. If you are not intentionally thinking about power, you could likely be doing your team a profound disservice. Choice of one tool or another could worsen or help the situation in different ways. Here are some resources to help.
Thoughtful, conscious guidance for remote work for social change is available from APC (Association for Progressive Communications), which works remotely with a distributed team (normally, not just during Covid). APC has also produced a diverse list of resources for supporting human rights online during this time.
Find guidance and tips here from Aspiration Tech on power dynamics and inclusion, towards “facilitating a meeting where everyone feels empowered to participate meaningfully.” The Aspiration guide describes ways in which virtual meetings can compound privilege and existing structural inequalities — and how people assert their power in this virtual format. Based on that awareness, the resource provides step-by-step guidance for how to manage these dynamics in preparation for meetings, in real time, and afterwards.
Remote work tools/platforms
Choosing tools that align with your values
In using whichever tool seems easiest or becomes the default, and not considering your choices, you may be contributing to propping up the success of a company that is compromising your organisation’s values. If today Zoom is shutting out Chinese dissidents, even outside China, tomorrow an activist from your country could be next. And unintentional consequences can result from the platform’s vulnerabilities. Conversely, choosing technology intentionally is a way to show solidarity and mutual support.
With any tool, there will be a bit of a learning curve at first, but the best alternatives are not difficult to use. Your team will quickly adapt.
And you can help them to adapt. You can test out a new tool, learn it well, and invest in bringing your people along, providing extra support to those most likely to need it. Do a test run. Explain how to call in (affordably) if your internet doesn’t work. For example, at one recent online conference, the organisers conducted matchmaking to connect tech-proficient participants with other participants who needed assistance.
Easy, better, free alternatives to Zoom
Each of these is free and instant, no downloads required (unless you want the app on mobile phone):
- BigBlueButton: you can use BBB at various links available, because it’s hosted by different parties, or you can host your own (free & open source)
- Jitsi Meet as hosted by GreenHost, a nice clean version of Jitsi Meet (free & open source)
Many more options, compared
- Frontline Defenders: Guide to Secure Group Chat & Conferencing Tools (27 May 2020) — Very comprehensive. Lists many good recommendations. Condemns Zoom and others not listed.
- Thorough chart comparing features: https://videoconferencing.guide
- Free Software Foundation: Better than Zoom: Try these free software tools for staying in touch (3 April 2020) — A more technical earlier guide that covers more things you might want to do, besides chat and conference.
- Short review of some open source Working from Home tools for document, schedule, team management, as well as for communications, from GreenNet.
- Hmm: https://team.video
- Remote Work Survival Kit, a very comprehensive living document, out of UK. Has a very comprehensive list of options for platforms, though not with much detail on security or ethics. But also many more resources.
Practical guidance on using Zoom (and others)
To address immediate problems that can affect your calls, here are two guides on how to use Zoom more carefully. Some steps are very basic, such as how you share the meeting link, and ensuring a password is actually mandatory, though these measures do not fully address the deeper vulnerabilities of Zoom. Even Zoom passwords can be broadly hacked.
- Zoom Safety for Organizers (and Everyone Else) from the Boston Political Education Editorial Committee
- Zoombombing Self-Defense Guide from Palante Tech — “a technical guide for increasing community safety and security when using Zoom Meetings for public or semi-public events”
Palante notes, “While the technical details in this guide are specific to Zoom Meetings, much of the guide can be adapted for use with other similar video conferencing platforms, including Jitsi Meet.“
How deep do Zoom’s problems go? Really, why default to Zoom? Will your audience switch over with you?
There are really nice alternatives to Zoom, at least one of which will do everything that you need/want Zoom to do. In addition to “zoombombing” and other undesirable and harmful interference during your calls, there are deeper issues that will compromise your ability to work safely and securely.
1. Zoom has no end-to-end encryption (whereas other tools have it)
Zoom used to lie about having end-to-end encryption. Here is good reporting from April: “the company is able to access data in transit along that connection, and can also be compelled to provide it to governments.”
More recently, Zoom said it was possible to offer end-to-end encryption but would only make it available to premium paying customers. Oh, and it’s still not built. (And it could be very difficult to build it in now.) Here’s the status, direct from the company.
2. Zoom has enforced censorship at government request
In June, following the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests Zoom disclosed it took down US-based activists’ accounts at China’s behest. It promises it won’t do it again. Great.
In September, Zoom (and YouTube and Facebook) prohibited use of its platform for a panel at a US university after pressure regarding a guest’s means of political resistance.
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