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Tue, 07 Jul 2020

The Slack and Zoom gilded cage for astronomers

Why should astronomers not use Zoom or Slack for voice/audio/text/file communication over the Internet?

Practical reasons include:

  1. we should "keep control of the software — so that the software doesn't control us";
  2. we should use software that allows and encourages interoperability like email, so that nobody is forced to use any particular server or software;
  3. we should be able to easily export our communications and stored information and copy these locally or shift them to another server;
  4. we should not be forced to install unverifiable software that may contain Trojans, backdoors or other malware.
Zoom and Slack both violate 1 — their software is non-free. 2. In 2018 Slack stopped allowing connections over two of the most widely used messaging protocols — irc and xmpp: Slack is opposed to the freedom to interconnect between instant messaging networks. Slack's strategy of gradually burning these bridges/gateways" as it increases its market dominance is part of vendor lock-in. 3. You'll have to check if Slack/Zoom make data export this easy, but I suspect that they do not. This is another component of vendor lock-in. (Interoperability and data export are in principle closely related.) 4. Use of Zoom forces us to install dangerous software (binary blobs) on our computers. We and the wider software community cannot verify that the binary blobs needed for the Zoom client are free of backdoors and trojans. Zoom client software is unverifiable software.

Do the ends justify the means? Independently of the practical reasons to not use Zoom or Slack (or Skype, MS Teams/GAFAM, Webex), there are ethical reasons:

Ethical reasons include:

  1. "You are the product, not the customer." When you use Zoom or Slack, you are the product that they sell to corporate clients. They will do whatever they can to keep a big mass of users addicted to their services, and sacrifice your privacy, freedom of interoperability, freedom to backup your own data, or cybersecurity, if it is in their corporate interests to sell these to the highest bidder.
  2. By pressuring your local community to use Slack or Zoom, you are weakening the support for ethically constructed communities — those built on the basis of free-licensed software, transparency, cooperation, intellectual freedom. Developers of Jitsi/BBB/Jami/Matrix need bug reports, wishlist items, open, constructive discussion and encouragement to continue. You are not forbidden from supporting these community software developers with money: free software does not mean zero-payment software.

The most common counterargument to the practical and ethical arguments above is the Tyranny of Convenience [Keye 2009] (and [Wu 2018]): "It works! It works! I just want to communicate efficiently! I'm not an expert in software! Most people in our community use it, so we should too. And Zoom/Slack has feature X, which I couldn't find on Jitsi/BBB/Jami/Matrix in a five-second search." This brings us back to consequentialism, the philosophical stance according to which the ends justify the means. The question here is how bad the means are compared to the ends. Software is at the core of the biggest geopolitical and economic power struggles of the XXIst century. Is it worth it to support authoritarian software and close to totalitarian software corporations given that "it's convenient? How many people in the XXth century felt that convenience justified small actions, in themselves "non-political" but implicitly supporting the totalitarian governments of that century, only to regret it later? And how does Slack actually behave towards its employees? "Slack employees ... cannot speak out about [the propietary Slack software], for fear of retribution (so they're inherently gagged by fear over mortgage etc. or self-restraint that defies logic/ethics)", according to Roy Schestowitz.

Alternatives exist! A complementary answer to the practical arguments above is that if we want text, voice and video communication — after all, we're humans and it's especially important during the pandemic to keep up the video-stream-to-video-stream contact — it feels good — then we should remember that we do already have practical free software packages to run ourselves and servers that already run that software. Checking at we find:

Slack and Zoom control us if we use their services. But we control Jitsi/BBB/Jami/Matrix.

Continuing to more robust communication, the big paradox is how it's possible for people with PhDs in astrophysics to claim that they cannot handle irc. Irc is efficient, robust, light-weight and has matured through several decades of debugging and development. You can choose any client of your liking on your own computer — in a standalone gui, in a browser or in a terminal. It's not rocket science. And since we cannot do "rocket science" without typing equations, text, reasoning, specific lines of code — what's wrong with irc? For observational files, databases, software, diagrams, git repositories, all of this in the end has to be handled as text. In any case, those who want audio/video have it with Jitsi/BBB/Jami/Matrix.

So not only are Zoom and Slack impractical and unethical, but there's no need to use them. They don't provide the freedom to communicate; they instead welcome us instead to prison — which, for the moment, seems to be gilded, but is still a prison with all the associated costs.

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