Is Zoom in trouble again and what does this mean for generative AI?

Zoom is catching quite a bit of heat in the past 24 hours over two recent changes including terms of service and return to office. 

If you are a Zoom customer, you will want to read this post and understand where you stand. The core of the matter applies equally to other vendors and generative AI. 

In addition to recently changing their terms of service, Zoom announced that they will require employees withing 50 miles of an office to return two days a week. 

These two changes are causing quite a stir. Is the blowback warranted or an overreaction? Here’s my take and how I think it will impact Zoom, their competitors, broader companies and generative AI. 

Changes to terms of service

Recently Zoom changed their terms of service to state that using their service gives Zoom certain access to customer data that may be used in a number of ways both defined and undefined. The specific sections to read are Section 10 Customer Content and subsections 10.1-10.6. 

The data in question includes ‘service generated’ data (think calls and call data) as well as customer content (think uploaded files, chat, etc). 

Today (August 7, 2023), Zoom took two steps to try and alleviate concerns. They updated their terms of service and Zoom’s Chief Product Officer Smita Hashim posted a blog entry trying to explain that customers have the option to opt-out and how generative AI is being used. 

But is this enough? No. The contract terms are very concerning, and the blog post just muddied the waters rather than clarifying the terms. The way the contract terms are written, even with an opt-out in certain aspects, the terms still give Zoom lots of contractual leverage with customer data. 

Zoom customers will want to ensure that they read the terms of service and understand what they are getting into. 

Should customers jump ship to competing products?

In a word, no. I have not yet read the contracts for competing solutions like Microsoft (Teams), Cisco Webex and Google Meet and while the Zoom contract terms are likely concerning for Zoom customers, I suspect that competing products may have similar terms. Let’s be honest, most organizations just click through the prompts when signing up and do not read the Terms and Conditions of their contracts to fully understand what rights they have and what they are giving away. 

Bottom line: Read and understand your contracts. You can’t get upset with Zoom if you didn’t read the contract. And if others are doing the same thing, it presents a broader problem to address rather than bringing the heat only to Zoom. 

Zoom requires return to office

The second Zoom announcement was that Zoom is requiring employees back into the office two days a week. There was later clarification that it applies to employees that live within 50 miles of a Zoom office. 

Considering the nature of Zoom’s business, this may seem hypocritical. However, it falls in line with actions taken by a growing number of enterprises that are attempting to support hybrid work. 

Zoom has tools that support remote work. Does this move also suggest that even Zoom has failed to make remote work functional with their own tools? Many are asking these questions and while they are reasonable questions, I think it is an overreaction due to the nature of Zoom’s business. I don’t think it is a sign of Zoom’s failure, but rather of the changing business work dynamics. 

Where to go from here

The first step is: Read your contracts. Understand what you signed up for. Before you fire one provider and move to another, ensure that you are not stepping into the same thing. 

Second, understand that companies have long-since given up rights to privacy and customer data over time. It has been a long, slow slide, but it is happening. This isn’t a slide that will stop on its own and where regulation is stepping in to curb the slide. 

The bottom line is that these are not black and white issues. Take a breath, remove the emotion and determine the right next steps for your organization. 

Impact on generative AI

There has been a standing question around how all vendors (not just Zoom) are using generative AI and more specifically customer data to train their models. Are these LLMs leveraging customer data? Is it possible that enterprises have already agreed via contract to allow vendors to use their customer data for generative AI? Absolutely! 

The bottom line is that this should open more eyeballs to digging into understanding how data is really used…today and into the future.

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