Not call: Open source gurus urge you to dump Zoom

In footsteps of GiveUpGitHub, campaign follows AI ToS fiasco

The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) is calling on free and open source software (FOSS) contributors to stop using Zoom video conferencing in light of the app maker's AI-friendly terms-of-service scandal.

Back in March, Zoom quietly changed its fine print to include a clause in section 10.4 that assigned the video-chat biz perpetual, royalty-free rights to use "customer content" to train machine learning models.

Many companies appear to be keen to expand what they can do with user-generated data while limiting what others might do with such data. A month before Zoom's rule change, Microsoft took similar steps by altering its terms of service to give its AI-enhanced Bing more latitude to process and store user input.

Then in July, the Windows giant said it would change its Microsoft Services Agreement at the end of September to limit reverse engineering and data extraction. The New York Times meanwhile modified its terms of service to make it clearer that its content cannot be used for training AI models. Reddit and Twitter have also moved to keep site data from being fed to AI models.

Zoom's altered legalese was not widely noticed until earlier this month when social media pique reached the tech press. The vid biz on August 7, 2023, responded with a blog post acknowledging the backlash. To make amends, it modified its acquisitive terms of service in section 10.4 to say, "Notwithstanding the above, Zoom will not use audio, video or chat Customer Content to train our artificial intelligence models without your consent."

Four days later, on August 11, 2023, the software house backtracked further by rewriting section 10.4 and dropping the qualifier "without your consent." It now disavows any use of customer content for machine learning.

"Zoom does not use any of your audio, video, chat, screen sharing, attachments or other communications-like Customer Content (such as poll results, whiteboard and reactions) to train Zoom or third-party artificial intelligence models," the firm's legal boilerplate currently reads.

Nonetheless, the SFC, a non-profit that supports FOSS projects, has had enough.

We warned that relying on proprietary, for-profit controlled technology as essential infrastructure is dangerous

"Throughout the pandemic and its widespread Zoom adoption, we warned that relying on proprietary, for-profit controlled technology as essential infrastructure is dangerous," the organization wrote on Tuesday. "Last week, Zoom demonstrated exactly why everyone must stop using their services without any further delay."

To help make that happen, SFC said it is adopting BigBlueButton's open source chat software, previously available to FOSS member projects, as an official part of the group's infrastructure. And the SFC said any FOSS contributor who needs access to a video chat service can apply for access.

Asked to comment on the SFC call to abandon Zoom, a spokesperson for the video-chat outfit pointed to the company's August 11 reversal of its AI rights grab and sent a copy of the text disavowing the use of any "communications-like customer content" to train Zoom or third-party AI models.

The Register responded by inquiring whether Zoom, prior to the language change, actually used customer content to train AI models – SFC claims "Zoom was revealed to be repurposing private user data to train machine learning models" – or whether it only gave itself the right to do so without actually doing so.

Zoom told us no such training occurred. "Zoom did not use customer audio, video, chat, screen-sharing, attachments, or other communications like customer content (such as poll results, whiteboard, and reactions) to train our AI models," a spokesperson said.

The SFC post cites the March 2023 change in Zoom's terms of service as the rationale for abandoning the video-conferencing software, even as it acknowledges that the developer reversed its position and tried to distance itself from its AI rights grab.

"After widespread push back 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," the SFC said. "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."

Pointing to a recent analysis that suggests it could take as long as 30 minutes to read Zoom's terms and conditions, the SFC wants the FOSS community to rethink its dependence on Zoom's popular but proprietary software.

The SFC last year took a similar position with regard to GitHub, based on the Microsoft-owned cloud code storage silo's decision to sell access to its Copilot programming assistant service, which is based on an OpenAI machine learning model trained on open source software.

Bradley Kuhn, SFC policy fellow, told The Register in an email that SFC doesn't have the resources of a firm like Microsoft to collect data to assess the impact of its GitHub abandonment campaign and that GitHub's terms of service forbid scouring GitHub accounts to find the GiveUpGitHub logo.

"Anecdotally, we have heard from major institutions (primarily universities) who have been successful in using our materials to help convince their administrations to help them stay off GitHub for their projects," said Kuhn. "We also talk to contributors to FOSS projects on a regular basis who desperately want to move away from GitHub in the long term."

They almost universally dislike GitHub's behavior, but the network effects of GitHub's loss-leader proprietary product trap them

Kuhn added that SFC isn't aware of any community-oriented FOSS projects that want to remain on GitHub. "They almost universally dislike GitHub's behavior, but the network effects of GitHub's loss-leader proprietary product trap them," he explained, likening the situation to challenges of moving away from fossil fuel vehicles.

"We also don't think either the Exit Zoom or GiveUpGitHub campaigns can happen quickly," Kuhn added. "The entire problem with these proprietary services is that they insinuate themselves into workflows at organizations and getting out of them requires substantial, sometimes Herculean, efforts."

Nonetheless, Kuhn said SFC has been making progress in its push to wean people from proprietary services and software, despite resource constraints. He said the SFC has been in long-term talks with Oregon State University's Open Source Lab to develop an alternative to GitHub hosting. And the Sourceware project, he said, recently joined SFC to offer FOSS-based hosting for certain projects.

"On the Exit Zoom side, you see in our announcement that we took this past week to make sure that we were prepared to offer BBB [BigBlueButton]-based services right away to members of the FOSS community," said Kuhn. "Since video chat is only one service and basically one package to maintain, we believe we can provide outward-facing services to FOSS contributors who need video chat but want to Exit Zoom. GiveUpGitHub requires a longer time horizon." ®

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