Major Silicon Valley companies censored an event at San Francisco State University on Wednesday.
This means that during the pandemic, private companies closely aligned with the government have immense power over what can be said, even in an academic setting.
Zoom, the web-based videoconferencing platform, announced Tuesday evening that it was prohibiting SFSU from using its software to host a planned webinar on Wednesday with Leila Khaled, the Palestinian resistance icon who is now in her seventies and lives in Jordan.
On Wednesday, the event went ahead via YouTube, but shortly after it began, the company cut off the video stream, replacing it with a notice that said “This video has been removed for violating YouTube’s Terms of Service.”
According to an email seen by The Electronic Intifada on Wednesday, professor Rabab Abdulhadi, director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora program at SFSU, and the event’s co-moderator professor Tomomi Kinukawa, say they expected the university to “seriously and publicly challenge Zoom’s attempt to control higher education and the content of our curriculum and classrooms.”
The professors add that “the privatization of our education is a serious development. As a public institution, SFSU must refuse and resist.”
Zoom’s announcement was a capitulation to the Israeli government and anti-Palestinian groups – including the Anti-Defamation League, StandWithUs and the Lawfare Project – which have pressured the company for weeks over the planned event.
Last week, Israeli lawmakers publicly denounced the event and smeared its organizers as anti-Semitic.
A member of the left-wing political group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Khaled is best known for her role in a series of plane hijackings in 1969 and 1970. She has not been involved in any armed resistance activities in decades.
Act.IL declared “victory” on Wednesday morning.
It had then urged its users to disrupt the YouTube stream while it was in progress.
Khaled would have been speaking alongside South African anti-apartheid military leader Ronnie Kasrils, US activists and former political prisoners Sekou Odinga and Laura Whitehorn, and scholar Rula Abu Dahou, director of the women’s studies institute at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank.
SFSU president Lynn Mahoney had defended the planned event on academic freedom grounds.
But in a bizarre statement, Mahoney said on Wednesday that Zoom’s refusal to host the webinar is as “wounding to some” as Khaled’s participation in a classroom discussion.
She did not say if the administration was going to do more to challenge the company’s policy.
Abdulhadi accuses the SFSU administration of systematically undermining her AMED program, including canceling Palestine-specific courses and gutting its budget.
Israel lobby organizations attempted to get federal and state governments involved in shutting down the webinar.
The Lawfare Project, a pro-Israel group that uses lawsuits to harass supporters of Palestinian rights, recently sent a letter to the National Security Division of the US Department of Justice.
It claimed that SFSU hosting Khaled would constitute “material support” to US-designated “terrorists,” even though Khaled is not being compensated for her involvement in the webinar.
The Lawfare Project has been one of Abdulhadi’s most vicious attackers, attempting – but failing – to silence her.
Additionally, the Zionist group AMCHA Initiative claimed that the event violates two California laws.
However, free speech defense organization FIRE said neither of those laws applies.
Supporters of Palestinian rights and academic freedom have been pushing back.
The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) declared “its unflinching support” for the webinar and for Abdulhadi and called Israel lobby efforts to smear and silence those advocating for justice “poisonous and destructive.”
Private companies as arbiters of speech
After earlier failing to get the university to cancel the event, anti-Palestinian groups pivoted to pressuring Zoom, with the Lawfare Project threatening the company under the same “material support” clause.
Israel advocates also protested outside Zoom’s headquarters on Tuesday.
“In light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise, we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event,” the company stated later that day.
As a private company, Zoom sets its own terms of service (ToS) and can decide what it will allow on its platform.
But with most public discourse and even education now dependent on such platforms, companies like Zoom, YouTube and Facebook are now essentially the arbiters of free speech.
Israel lobby groups celebrated Zoom’s censorship.
Abdulhadi said what happened is part of a pattern by Israel lobby groups.
“What they’re trying to do – these attacks and vilifications, the smearing and bullying – is to deflect the discussion,” Abdulhadi told The Electronic Intifada.
“They are bothered by the ways in which we are focusing on questions of Black liberation, Palestinian liberation and prison abolition, and the connections between these movements,” Abdulhadi said.