We Call on FOSS Contributors to “Exit Zoom”

SFC Announces Program to Help FOSS Enthusiasts Adopt Zoom Alternatives

August 15, 2023

Software Freedom Conservancy stands with concerned users and consumers; we too face difficult choices with respect to software rights and freedom. As part
of our ongoing advocacy work, we educate and help people to choose more Free and Open Source Software (“FOSS”), and we aid developers to create and improve
FOSS options for the general public. We also strive to “meet people where they are.”

The industrialized world has changed since the advent of FOSS. Only the most privileged among us have the option to avoid proprietary software — from the grocery store coupons, to interacting with government agencies, to looking for a job, to attending mandatory meetings at our jobs. The pandemic accelerated the widespread adoption of new technologies, such as video chat. Quite quickly after the pandemic started, we noted that some of our colleagues began pressuring us to meet on Zoom. It was really hard in the early days of the pandemic to balance the need for human connection and a principled stance on video conferencing software. We want to acknowledge that we all make tradeoffs and negotiations with our ethics, and these are not cut and dry issues. The wider business and non-profit sectors beyond FOSS quickly standardized on wholly proprietary video chat software — and Zoom was, by far, the market leader.

We considered completely avoiding those meetings in protest. However, we saw the same pressure that every individual feels when presented with a Zoom link: you miss the chance to even participate in the dialogue, and in some cases, you even risk losing your job! As a compromise for our situation, SFC staff took an activist approach. We insist on joining those meetings solely by phone — allowing us to use our mostly-FOSS LineageOS mobile devices.

This strategy had benefits and downsides. Sometimes, being the only participant without video sparked interesting discussion about avoidance of proprietary and centralized platforms was an essential part of advocating for ethical technology. Participants on those calls, often acknowledged that on a high level the issues we raised were important, even if they weren’t ready to make a change immediately. Other times, we were made to feel “othered” because we weren’t appearing on video and had no visual clues about what was happening in the meeting. That feeling is difficult for anyone to endure, even while we stood steadfast in our principles.

Throughout the pandemic and its widespread Zoom adoption, we warned that relying on proprietary, for-profit controlled technology as essential infrastructure is dangerous. Last week, Zoom demonstrated exactly why everyone must stop using their services without any further delay. Specifically, a March 2023 change to Zoom’s terms and conditions was uncovered by the press. Namely, Zoom was revealed to be repurposing private user data to train machine learning models.

After widespread pushback and negative press, Zoom amended their terms of service to say they would not use any user participation in Zoom meetings or other user data to train their models. But as is so frustratingly common in the incredibly long and legal language laden terms of service, Zoom reserves the right to change the terms at any point. Only suggesting that users “regularly check” for updates to ensure their security and rights are not taken from them. This points to the constant struggle in the power dynamic between corporations and users. Zoom has abused their household name for profit, knowing that users will not be able to understand the change of terms of service or have an option to use any other software.

Sadly, such corporate bullying by Big Tech is nothing new. Technology users are presented with complex terms and conditions constantly merely to engage in the most simple operations. A recent analysis showed that it could take up to 30 hours just to read the entirety of Zoom’s terms and conditions. And, if you haven’t gotten some training in reading contracts, it’s unlikely you’ll be sure what you’re really agreeing to, and even with such knowledge and training, we estimate it would take about 50-100 person hours to really understand every implication on rights, privacy, and freedom of Zoom’s terms. It’s thus no surprise that it took the press months (from March to August) to realize that the clause granting Zoom a “perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license and all other rights” to use all Customer Content for “machine learning, artificial intelligence, training, testing,” and a variety of other product development purposes.

At SFC, we invested, because our principles (to find or build FOSS solutions for our work) demanded it, in self-hosting alternative video chat platforms through the pandemic (as a parallel strategy to attending Zoom meetings by phone). It was complicated, difficult, and we got teased and sometimes insulted by colleagues who kept questioning why it was so important that we self-host FOSS to do the job of video conference calls. The proprietary and for-profit nature of Zoom also has made it subject to multiple cases of algorithmic bias. The once esoteric seeming issues are now a stark reality. Without control over our basic infrastructure, we will become wholly reliant on companies who prioritize profits over consumer rights. And, like Lando Calrissian, consumers must worry that Darth Vader, at any time, may “alter our deal”. We can do little more than “pray they do not alter it further” . In response to this conundrum, SFC is working to mitigate the damage that Zoom is causing to our colleagues.

Our FOSS member projects have had access to our BigBlueButton chat server for some time. Today we are making it an official part of our infrastructure that we provide to FOSS projects that are part of our organization. More importantly, we announce that we are welcoming anyone who contributes to FOSS who needs access to a video chat server they can trust to apply for access. Finally, we are welcoming anyone who becomes (or renews as) an SFC Sustainer to also have access. Details on all this are below.

Even more, in the coming months, we will run various online sessions that show how we set up and configured our own BBB server and publish tutorial information — in hopes that others can launch self-hosting collectives and Exit Zoom!

We realize this is a small step in mitigating the damage that Zoom is doing and has done.
Big Tech’s classic strategy — going back to the 1970s — is to lock users
into a specific technological workflow and software stack, and then manipulate the terms.
Users become victims of Big Tech’s control of their devices and technological needs.
We are extremely concerned about individuals who run confidential support groups, doctors
who practice telemedicine, and workers who Zoom is now telling “if your office uses
Zoom, your choices now are to become a subject in our machine learning experiments, or
lose your job for not showing up to mandatory meetings”. We hope that this action by Zoom will finally convince the industry and governments that funding FOSS solutions for key
infrastructure is necessary — rather simply funding more and more proprietary solutions under
the full control of for-profit companies.

How Sustainers Get Access

Make your annual renewal using our online form, and (starting early next week), you’ll receive instructions on how to set up your account.

How SFC Member Projects Get Access

Contact your Project Leadership Committee (PLC) and ask them to send you the instructions they received.

We will be providing limited access to other FOSS community members. As you know, we are a small non-profit and do not have the resources to provide unlimited access to our video conferencing software, but are working to expand that through donations. If you are interested in applying for an account, you can sign up for a new account here and once you’ve received the email verification link, please send us an email with the following information:

  • What is the name and email you used to sign up?
  • What FOSS communities are you a part of?
  • What kinds of meetings do you expect you’ll be hosting?
  • Where do your meetings currently take place?
  • How will using FOSS video conferencing help your community?