Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Working from home: The future of business is remote

Microsoft Teams or Zoom? Choose your politics

In these heightened socio-political times, how much does it matter that certain tech companies have questionable socio-political attitudes?

microsofts-new-data-dignity-team-could-h-5d8dc331800f320001e09d82-1-sep-27-2019-19-54-59-poster.jpg

Is any tech company politically correct? For you, that is.

This is the time to be engaged.

Politically, that is.

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For tech companies, the wider socio-political debate has incited ever-increasing activism -- or, at least, bouts of extreme, sudden conscience -- among many of its employees.

Facebook employees, for example, suddenly wonder just how much the site should enable Donald Trump's subtle communications and foment extremist violence.

Last week, IBM and Amazon announced they're wondering whether facial recognition is really something they should be offering to those in authority. The former decided it would get out of the business altogether. Not that it was heavily into it in the first place.

Still, one can't help thinking that these companies had heard the rumblings of employee discontent, as well as the echoes of social unrest following the killing of George Floyd. Microsoft certainly heard, as it, too, repeated it wouldn't allow the police to use its facial recognition.

Is Any Tech Company Politically Correct?

How much, though, will all this matter, businesswise?

Perhaps the most competitive area that's emerged from the sudden necessity to work from home is video conferencing.

Should you go with Microsoft Teams or Zoom? From the socio-political perspective, that is.

Last week made it all quite difficult. On Monday, 250 Microsoft employees called on CEO Satya Nadella and Executive Vice President of Corporate Strategy, Core Services Engineering, and Operations Kurt Delbene to withdraw the company from all police contracts and even support the defunding of the Seattle Police Department.

History doesn't offer too much hope. Microsoft has, over the years, faced employee unrest for working with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Defense (the infamous JEDI contract about which Amazon is still sore), and the Pentagon. Employee concerns don't seem to have led to the company often changing its stance.

Those with qualms about such matters should choose Zoom, right?

Well, it depends on where your politics lie.

Questions have been asked about Zoom's seemingly cuddly relationship with China and the encryption keys which seem to have, oh, mistakenly been sent there. Last week, there was a kerfuffle after Zoom closed the (paid) account of a group of Chinese activists based in the US. The company claimed it was to comply with local law. Post-kerfuffle, the account was reactivated.

Not that Microsoft has exactly shied away from China, despite that country's blatantly authoritarian attitudes couched in the vocabulary of social solidarity.

And should one mention diversity here? Is there any significant tech company that's really made appreciable progress in that area? It doesn't seem like it. Indeed, Snap CEO reportedly announced last week that he wouldn't reveal diversity numbers because, well, they might reveal that Silicon Valley isn't diverse.

Do Consumers Care?

Do you see how difficult this all is? You want to be on the side of the angels, but it's hard to find them.

Which leaves a very painful question. Though employees of tech companies might feel this is their moment to effect real socio-political change, will consumers actually care?

It's not as if Apple, for example, has stood up for the greater liberal good when it comes to its business in China. I don't hear too many mutterings from inside Cupertino or from its intensely loyal consumers that something must be done. Last week, indeed, Apple removed podcast apps that weren't in harmony with China's single public voice.

One of the innate characteristics of humanity is its desperate hypocrisy. We'll sacrifice so many principles for the opportunity to get things that make us feel good -- even if that feeling lasts but a few seconds.

We'll claim we really care about an issue -- say, privacy -- and blithely behave in a way that's entirely counter to our claim.

If Microsoft or Zoom suddenly saw real, actual consumers turn against them for socio-political reasons, they might begin to act more forcefully, rather than just hum a melody of freedom. Instead, business will be business and money will be sought, wherever it might be.

So for all that activists might wish that humans had a consistent moral compass, that compass operates according to a highly mercurial magnetic field.

You, though, might be made of sterner morals. You might think you can avoid both Microsoft Teams and Zoom in favor of Google Meet.

Google has far cleaner moral stances, doesn't it? Why, it stood in front of China in 2010 and said: "I'll do everything for money, but I won't do that."

Yet some of Google's own employees seem less certain that the company is such a defender of human rights anymore.

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Morality. It's A Nice Idea.

So can you choose tech companies along moral lines? The sad truth seems to be that consumers don't. Neither do the many corporations that are customers of tech companies.

For all that some might have heard that Facebook is in the hands of Trump sympathizers, they continue to gossip there. For all that Twitter seems to be the angry home of more liberal types, conservatives find it a fine place to disseminate their own brand of bile.

For all that Amazon tries to look good by not offering the police its (unreliable) facial recognition software, it still enjoys an extremely cozy -- and some might say highly questionable -- relationship with law enforcement via its intrusive Ring doorbells. And this new business of not allowing the police to use Amazon's facial recognition for a year? Well, employees campaigned for that, oh, two years ago. Now, though, the PR looks so much better.

We're living in times when nothing is secure. Not technology and certainly not the moral pronouncements of tech companies.

You can decide what's questionable for you. In the end, you'll likely be seduced by ease of use, depth of cost, and the occasional, irrationally warm association with one brand or another.

When Zoom has become a verb, you're not going to be thinking too much about its alleged relationship with China, are you? You have to zoom to a Zoom party.

But if you want to be as pure as you can be in choosing video conferencing providers, perhaps it's worth looking at the home pages of Microsoft and Zoom.

The former currently enjoys a black oblong in support of Black Lives Matter. It declares the company is "United for change." As for Zoom's home page, no mention of Black Lives Matter at all.