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Open source developers urged to ditch Zoom over user data controversy


Software Freedom Conservancy, a not-for-profit that serves support and legal services for open source projects, has called on developers to ditch Zoom over recent changes it made to its terms and conditions (T&Cs) over how it might leverage user data to bolster its machine learning models.

In a press release issued yesterday, Software Freedom Conservancy — which claims sponsorship from a number of high-profile companies including Google and Mozilla — said that it will work toward helping free and open source software (FOSS) “enthusiasts” adopt Zoom alternatives as part of a new program.

The crux of the problem dates back to March when Zoom injected a new clause into its T&Cs that some pro-privacy critics recently argued allowed the company to train its AI models on customer data such as audio and video, with no way to opt out. In the wake of a deluge of outrage across social media, Zoom sought to assure users that they would have to opt-in to sharing their data for such use-cases, adding clarifying language to its T&Cs to that effect.

While all might now seem well in the land of Zoom and data privacy, Software Freedom Conservancy points to remaining clauses in Zoom’s T&Cs which mean that it can still change the terms of its data usage in the future, placing the onus on the user to “regularly check” for updates.

“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,” the Conservancy writes. “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.”

Big tech boycotts

The Software Freedom Conservancy is no stranger to calling for Big Tech boycotts. Last year, it insisted that developers should stop using GitHub, after the Microsoft-owned code-hosting platform spawned a new commercial Copilot pair-programmer trained on human-generated code — much of which was produced for open source projects.

In response, the Conservancy said it would end its own use of GitHub internally, and would be rolling out a program to help its members transition away from GitHub. Moreover, it said it would no longer accept new members that couldn’t demonstrate a plan to move away from GitHub — a tall order, considering how embedded GitHub is in the world of software development.

As for Zoom, it seems that the Conservancy was never a huge fan of the platform anyway, owing in large part to its proprietary nature that promoted locking users in. The organization noted that while much of the world turned to Zoom during the pandemic-driven lockdown, it reluctantly had to participate in this due to it being the place where many of its colleagues and partners were doing business — but it only did so through dialling in by phone, rather than using the Zoom app.

“We considered completely avoiding those meetings in protest,” the organization continued. “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.”

The long and short of all this is that the Conservancy will be pushing its own self-hosted chat server that’s built on the BigBlueButton open source virtual classroom software, which it said its FOSS member projects (which includes Git, Selenium, and Godot) have been able to access for a while. Now, it said that it’s making the server “an official part of our infrastructure” that it provides to FOSS projects, and it’s now asking all FOSS contributors who want access to its video chat server to apply for access. And it will also be running sessions to help other entities set up and configure their own BigBlueButton server to encourage people to “launch self-hosting collectives” as part of a bigger movement to leave Zoom.

“Without control over our basic infrastructure, we will become wholly reliant on companies who prioritize profits over consumer rights,” the Conservancy writes.





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