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Zello Staff
By
January 13, 2021

Zello Takes Action Against Militias

First and foremost, let us be very clear about our stance on violence on our platform: we condemn the use of violence in the strongest possible terms and want our platform to be used for positive, constructive purposes and never for violence.

It is with deep sadness and anger that we have discovered evidence of Zello being misused by some individuals while storming the United States Capitol building last week. At this point though, we do not have any evidence of how Zello was effectively used beyond anecdotal reports of typical social media vanity messaging. Looking ahead, we are concerned that Zello could be misused by groups who have threatened to organize additional potentially violent protests and disrupt the U.S. Presidential Inauguration Festivities on January 20th. 

In response we are taking immediate action to ban all militia-related channels, while clarifying a few important points relative to how Zello is used and explaining how you can help. 

Zello is about live voice communication

Before diving into the details of our current and upcoming actions, it makes sense to clarify certain key aspects of the platform that make it impossible to compare with the likes of Facebook, or the now infamous Parler. First, we do not monetize our platform with ads, so we don’t try to gain from any particular type of expression on Zello. More importantly, Zello is centered around live voice communication, like a phone call, and is ephemeral in nature. We do not store any data for users to read through after the fact. With privacy in mind, communication on Zello is often encrypted end-to-end. This makes the task of proactive monitoring for compliance with our terms of service unrealistic: we simply cannot just “search our data” for specific keywords in conversations. We can search for hints given in the name, description, or sometimes the iconography used in a profile picture of Zello channels and users, but there’s hardly ever evidence of any wrongdoing in that content alone. To ensure our terms of use are respected, we rely on the community to highlight behavior they believe is in violation.

Past initiatives around abuse prevention

In the past year, we have been combating abuse on the platform in multiple ways. Last summer, we blocked search engines from indexing our user-generated content. While this change probably didn’t help our volume of Internet traffic, we felt it was the right thing to do to prevent bad actors from being too easily discovered through Internet search. It also helped take another step further in our transition from social network based on voice, to a utility serving business customers in transportation, construction, hospitality and many other frontline industries. Also worth mentioning was a modification of our search function in our apps so that certain keywords would no longer return results. 

Suspicious channels

Furthermore, we identified a list of potentially problematic channels, but unfortunately we lacked actual reports from users about any examples of content violating our terms of service. Without being able to rely on past conversations having taken place on these channels, we are doing our best to evaluate them against a recent addition to our terms of service. While we used to impose limitations on the content alone, we have now extended the notion of abuse on the platform to include use by organizations whose principles or leaders specifically endorse or espouse violence. It is with that perspective that we have deleted 2,000+ channels associated with militias and other militarized social movements. A large proportion of these channels had not had any activity recorded in recent months or years.

How to report abuse

We’ve published the following support article to provide better guidance on how to flag content: How to report content violating Zello’s terms of service? We hope Zello users will make use of that to surface problems to us directly. Just like when you are in an airport or some other large, hard to monitor public place, let us know if you see anything suspicious. Furthermore, if you were to see or hear evidence of a crime, then the best course of action is to immediately report it to your local law enforcement agency. Zello routinely collaborates with law enforcement to assist in due process, as we have in the past few days as a result of last week’s events.

Putting all this in perspective

During our years in business, we have learned a few things about moderation of content on our communication channels. The first one is that there are no obvious and easy answers to the question of preventing misuse. We know that many situations are not black and white. Often we find that the same person that one labels as a violent extremist because they belong to a certain channel, is also conducting search and rescue efforts to help stranded victims of hurricanes. Just today, the New York Times released an episode of their podcast “The Daily” in which they explained how blocked groups retreat and use progressively more obscure aliases or even platforms, making the work of law enforcement increasingly harder. And finally, through our many years of collaborating with law enforcement, both local and federal, we’ve learned that the persons of interest are often hiding in plain sight, with absolutely no recognizable mark of affiliation with any of the movements often discussed.

In conclusion

Exceptional times call for exceptional measures, and we spent an extraordinary amount of time over the past few months trying to figure out the right response, all while leading an entirely separate and successful business to service frontline workers around the world with live voice communication. We take the issue of violence and other kinds of wrongdoing on our platform just as seriously as we cherish the ideals of free speech. Beware of all those that would like you to make a snap judgment or make you believe this is a simple, cut and dried issue.