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internet

It's time for Zoom to look at the bigger picture


If a week is a long time in politics, then it’s an eternity in a pandemic. A month ago nobody – save perhaps employees of globally dispersed corporations – had heard of Zoom, the video-conferencing system. Now it has apparently become a critical part of our national infrastructure as many in the population try to work from home. Zoom is currently the most popular Apple download and second most popular Android download in the world. Just as “to Google” has become a synonym for “search online”, now “Zoom” has become a verb.

This is, of course, great for Zoom Video Communications Inc. Its share price has more than doubled in the same few weeks that most stocks have plummeted. However, becoming top dog in a networked marketplace has its downsides. One of them is that journalists start digging into your past. Another is that you acquire new responsibilities.

History first. Zoom followed rule No 1 in the playbook for internet companies: get big fast. The way to do that is to offer your service free – with the option of charging for superior services. At the moment Zoom offers free video conferencing for up to 1,000 participants, with a 40-minute time limit. If you want longer meetings, you have to pay for it. As with all such ‘free’ internet services, Zoom has had its share of anti-social uses – child abuse, porn and privacy violations, for example. To these has now been added a new problem of ‘Zoombombing’, where occasionally families and groups have had their discussions interrupted by trolls broadcasting pornography, Nazi propaganda and other crap.

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I write as a satisfied Zoom user – correction: customer, because I pay for the service. I prefer it to alternatives such as Skype, FaceTime and Microsoft Teams for larger conferences, partly because of the way it “foregrounds” the person who happens to be speaking at any moment. And it’s clear that the service is a boon for people in the isolation zones of most countries at the moment, so it’s adding tangible social value to our lives.

But some things about it need to be fixed, or at least clarified. The first of these involve Zoom’s relationship with Facebook. An investigation by Motherboard revealed that the Zoom iOS app was sending data to Facebook even if the user didn’t have a Facebook account. This stemmed from a decision by Zoom to use Facebook’s Software Development Kit (SDK) to provide a “Login with Facebook” facility – ostensibly to make it easier for new users to sign up. This was all part of the Get Big Fast rule, no doubt, but the way Zoom handled the disclosure was not exactly reassuring. It did quickly update the app and stopped the data transfer. But then it blew the gaff on its corporate blog.

“We were made aware on Wednesday, March 25, 2020,” it wrote, “that the Facebook SDK was collecting device information unnecessary for us to provide our services.” Ponder that for a moment. The level of carelessness implied by “we were made aware” is staggering. As the veteran analyst Ben Thompson observed in his newsletter, Zoom clearly had no idea what data Facebook was collecting. The only inference one can draw is that nobody in the company had actually read Facebook’s terms and conditions for the SDK – which say: “We can analyse your app, website, content, and data for any purpose, including commercial.” Then there’s the issue of security, and of encryption in particular.

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“We take security seriously and we are proud to exceed industry standards when it comes to your organisation’s communications,” says the Zoom website. Any host of a meeting can “secure a meeting with end-to-end encryption”. Well, that’s not quite right, at least if by “end to end” you mean encryption where the service provider has no way of decrypting the content (as, say, with WhatsApp or Signal). The encryption on Zoom communications at the moment is the kind that protects your communications with any website with ‘https’ in its URL. But the content is unencrypted while it is passing through Zoom’s cloud servers.

There may be good reasons for this, but at the very least the company’s website shouldn’t be making exaggerated claims about encryption. It should privilege facts over marketing puffery.

And the moral of all this? Zoom is providing a service of real value in these desperate times, but it needs to grow up. It’s playing in the big league now.

What I’m reading

Capital work
”Thomas Piketty takes on the ideology of inequality”. An illuminating review by Marshall Steinbaum in the Boston Review of Thomas Piketty’s massive and important new book.

Going bacterial?
Why the phrase “going viral” doesn’t sound so good any more. Lovely essay by Lee Siegel in the New York Times.

Start to finish
“How will the Coronavirus end?” Ed Yong’s long essay in the Atlantic. Best thing I’ve read on the pandemic so far.



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