Video Conferencing

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 21 video conferencing companies.

We also look at the climate impact of video calls, open-source software, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Verizon and give our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when choosing a video conferencing platform:

  • Is it open source? Open-source software typically gives greater control to users over their own data and supports a radically alternative business model.

  • Is it encrypted? End-to-end encryption ensures eavesdroppers cannot listen to your conversation.

  • Does it meet your needs? Features and functionality vary widely between platforms, so it’s important to assess whether your choice fits your purpose.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when choosing a video conferencing platform:

  • Does it support tech monopolies? Ethical Consumer has advocated for the break up of US ‘tech giants’, notably Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft due to the disproportionate power they hold, and the ways in which they use users’ data to consolidate that power. While it is sometimes difficult to avoid these companies, video conferencing is one area of technology where good alternatives exist.

  • Does the company support the extraction of fossil fuels? Several companies were marked down in the Climate Change category for partnerships with fossil fuel companies.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

In this guide, we assess the ethical performance of the companies behind twenty-one video conferencing platforms, including the major platforms used in both business and social settings, along with some lesser-known alternatives. We’ll discuss the privacy and surveillance issues endemic in the tech industry and weigh up the environmental costs and benefits of the move to remote meetings.

As well as their ethical practices, the tools in this guide will vary in terms of their ease of use, the features they offer and their performance in different settings. Video calls featuring a large number of users, or where users have slow internet connections, will often be more stable when using the more mainstream options.

We recommend putting any given video conference platform to the test before using it for an important meeting or event.

The growing market for video calls

As COVID-19 swept across the globe and citizens were sent into lockdown, millions turned to technology to stay connected to the rest of the world. And so, while many areas of the economy have suffered, the video conferencing market has exploded.

The biggest winner of all it seems is Zoom. The Silicon Valley-based platform emerged early on as first choice for businesses and consumers alike, and has seen its share price soar from $76 at the end of January to nearly $200 at the start of June, while daily users increased from 10 million in December to 300 million in April.

Zoom’s success has been something of a disruption, as web-based services are generally dominated by a handful of giant companies. Indeed, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all been playing catch up, releasing new branding, features and pricing for their video call apps as they jostle for position.

Elsewhere, large companies and investors have been scrambling for a piece of the pie. This is reflected in two major acquisitions that have been completed since April: the takeover of video conferencing platform BlueJeans by US telecommunications giant Verizon, and the merger of the Lifesize and Serenova platforms orchestrated by private equity group Marlin Equity Partners.

While the soaring demand may not endure, the long-term trend is likely to be growth, and there are suggestions that the shift towards remote working will continue after the crisis.

Personal or Business video platforms

Video conferencing platforms and software tend to fall into one of two categories, depending on whether they are designed for business or consumer use.

Business platforms designed for workplace meetings, such as BlueJeans, Lifesize and Webex typically include features such as screen-sharing, scheduling and the ability to dial into calls via a telephone line. They offer tiered pricing options, often with a free version that imposes some limitations on the length of meetings or number of participants.

Video chat platforms such as Houseparty and Facebook Messenger are consumer focused, usually free to use, and may include features such as video filters and effects, or built-in games.

Microsoft and Google have sought to tap into both markets by offering distinct products for each. Both have gone through several iterations but, currently, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet are aimed at business users while Microsoft’s Skype and Google’s Duo and Hangouts are targeted to consumers.

We have included platforms for both markets in this guide, since in practice customers can use the software for whatever they choose.

Video Conferencing Company Ethics

Arms and military supply

Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Verizon and Amazon – all major US tech corporations – were marked down under the Arms and Military Supply category. The companies developed and supplied various types of software, hardware, and cloud computing solutions for military bodies in the US.

Tax

Eleven of the companies rated get our worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Slack, Zoom, Cisco, LogMeIn, 8x8 and Verizon.

See our feature on the disparity between the tax paid by the big tech companies and what they can afford to pay during the COVID-19 crisis.

Political Activities

As detailed in our feature, the big tech companies are heavily involved in pushing a free-market ideology. As well as being marked down for giving money to free-market think tanks who help to spread climate denial, many were marked down in this category for their involvement in free-trade lobby groups like the Business Roundtable and the World Economic Forum. Microsoft is a member of nine of them, Amazon and Cisco seven, Google and Facebook six, Verizon three, and Apple two.
 

Climate change

Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Cisco were marked down in the Climate Change category for partnerships with fossil fuel companies, and for secondary criticism from Greenpeace on their climate change policies.

Excessive remuneration

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Slack, Zoom, Cisco, Logmein, 8x8 and Verizon were all marked down for paying senior staff over £1 million a year.
 

Facial recognition

Seven companies were marked down under Human Rights for their involvement in the development of facial recognition technology: Apple, Amazon, Cisco, CyberLink, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. The technology was considered to be insufficiently regulated and to pose a major threat to civil liberties when used for surveillance purposes.

Self-hosted versus Cloud 

Most mainstream video conferencing is hosted on the cloud, meaning that video calls will be routed through data centres outside of the control of the users.
This can be undesirable from a privacy point of view, since communications are potentially vulnerable to being intercepted (although this can be mitigated by the use of encryption, as discussed further below).

An alternative to cloud-hosted video conferencing is self-hosting, whereby clients connect via a server under their own control, such as an office server, or by leasing private server space from a third-party provider. This has clear advantages in terms of privacy, and it would provide an opportunity to choose a ‘green hosting’ provider which offers hosting infrastructure powered by renewable energy.

However, self-hosting for video conferencing requires a level of infrastructure and technical knowledge that makes it impractical for most casual users.

Some platforms, such as Jami and Kopano, circumvent the need for a server to relay data between users and instead use a distributed peer-to-peer system, meaning the video call data is sent directly between users.
 

Amazon and AWS

Amazon is the subject of an ongoing boycott call by Ethical Consumer for its aggressive tax avoidance and has been strongly criticised for its record on workers’ rights.

Amazon has its own video conference platform, Chime, which is featured on the score table and it recently announced a partnership with the popular business chat application, Slack – paid versions of Slack will henceforth use Amazon Chime to power its video conference function.

However, avoiding Amazon when video conferencing may not be as simple as avoiding Chime and the paid version of Slack.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the world’s largest cloud-hosting provider and is used by many other companies to host their platforms.

We found evidence that the following platforms used, or had recently used AWS as part of their cloud infrastructure: Houseparty, Slack, Zoom, Webex, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, Lifesize, and CyberLink U. This is not a definitive list, however, as companies don’t always disclose this information.

The climate impact of video calls

What about the climate impact of video calls?

Sadly, there aren’t any up-to-date reputable studies on this. There was one peer-reviewed study that compared video and in-person meetings back in 2014, which concluded:

“While the costs of these meeting forms depend on many factors such as distance travelled, meeting duration, and the technologies used, we find that video conferencing takes at most 7% of the energy/carbon of an in-person meeting.”

The authors say quite humbly: “the results of our work are not particularly surprising”.

A rough calculation based on the amount of data

Not only is the study above from 2014, it uses energy-intensity data from 2010. And studies in this area go out of date very quickly because the energy efficiency of the Internet has been roughly doubling every 2 years. (Usage has been rising at a similar rate, so the total energy use has remained roughly static).

It isn’t very hard to do an extremely rough estimate on this, however, based on more up-to-date average energy intensity figures for the Internet:

  • Video calls use 250 MB - 1.3 GB of data per participant per hour, depending on the quality.
     
  • The most recent reputable peer- reviewed estimate of the energy intensity of the internet found an average of 0.06 kWh per GB for 2015. Assuming that it is still halving every 2 years, it would now be around 0.015 kWh/ GB. All data does not use the same amount of energy, but (as stated) this is a rough estimate.
     
  • The UK grid carbon footprint is currently 0.28 kg CO2e per kWh.

That makes about 1-6 grams of CO2e per hour you spend in video calls. You’ll have emitted that after travelling just a few metres in a car, which won’t get you to many meetings. Doing an average commute of 9 miles in an average diesel car emits about 3 kg CO2e, so this would be about 0.2% of that. In other words, video calls are almost certainly going to be better for the climate.

In the course of trying to get to the bottom of all of this, we emailed a couple of experts, who both agreed with this conclusion:

I haven't seen any reputable studies tackling this question yet, but moving bits is almost always much less environmentally damaging than moving atoms.” – Jonathan Koomey, President of Koomey Analytics, and one of the authors on the 2017 paper above.

Overall, the GHG impacts of Zoom calls are small relative to other daily activities, and likely to be much lower than commuting to an office in a car.” – George Kamiya, Digital/Energy Analyst, International Energy Agency.

cartoon image: person using a laptop with coffee and stationary in the foreground with a green leafy background

Security and privacy in video conferencing software

Zoom has come under heavy criticism for its performance on security and privacy, with more than a dozen serious issues being exposed since March 2020.

Among these was the phenomenon known as ‘zoombombing’, whereby uninvited users gatecrash the meetings of strangers, in some cases shouting racist insults and other abuse.

In June 2020, Zoom admitted to suspending the accounts of human rights activists on the basis of complaints made by the Chinese government, which drew condemnation from human rights groups who accused it of being complicit in censorship. Zoom defended its actions, stating it was only complying with local law.

Other criticisms of Zoom have centered around security flaws in its desktop software that could allow attackers to spread malware. Its privacy policy has also come under fire, with critics suggesting it gave Zoom the right to share users' personal data with third-party advertisers.

The company pledged to fix the issues. Updates were released that resolve some of them, although new problems keep on surfacing.

However, the reason that Zoom has attracted so much negative press is at least in part just due to its unprecedented success. It is not alone: recent research by Consumer Reports highlighted a number of ambiguities in the privacy policies for Microsoft’s Skype and Teams, Google’s Duo and Meet, and Cisco’s Webex: the report stated:

“All three companies can collect data while you're in a video conference, combine it with information from data brokers and other sources to build consumer profiles and, potentially, tap into the videos for purposes like training facial recognition systems.”

Encryption

Among the criticisms levelled at Zoom, perhaps the most damaging was the misleading of customers over its encryption. Zoom had claimed to use ‘end-to-end’ encryption – signifying that only end-users (i.e. the people on the call) would have access to the content of meetings – but were forced to admit that, in reality, its own servers were able to access this content.

Zoom has since announced that it will roll out true end-to-end encryption to paying users. However, it will not be available to free users, which the company has said is to allow law enforcement agencies such as the FBI the possibility of accessing calls on free accounts.

End-to-end encryption is offered on the following platforms (in some cases this is switched on by default; in others, it will need to be set by the user): Jitsi, Kopano Meet, Whereby, BlueJeans, Lifesize, CyberLink U, Cisco Webex, Skype, MS Teams, Hangouts, Duo, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.

Facial recognition

Surveillance systems using facial recognition technology are growing in usage around the world, both for private security and state law enforcement.

According to UK campaigners Big Brother Watch, “Police and private companies in the UK have been quietly rolling out facial recognition surveillance cameras taking ‘faceprints’ of millions of people”.

In China, a vast network of facial recognition-enabled cameras are used for mass surveillance over the entire population and have been part of an oppressive crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, in the Xinjiang region.

The accuracy of the technology is another human rights concern, with increased rates of misidentification among particular ethnic groups being a widely reported issue.
 

Companies involved in facial recognition

In 2019, Microsoft was accused of enabling an Israeli government surveillance program in the West Bank through its investment in facial recognition company AnyVision. In response Microsoft cited an independent report that concluded AnyVision’s technology did not power such a program, but nevertheless announced that it would divest from AnyVision and end all investments into third-party facial recognition.

Microsoft still develops facial recognition of its own but has stated it will never sell the technology for surveillance.

Amazon announced, in June 2020, it would pause the supply of racially biased facial recognition to US police forces, as we have reported in our feature.

Facebook and Google have also run into controversies. Facebook recently paid a $550 million settlement after its facial recognition tool was found to be in violation of the privacy laws of the US state of Illinois. Google was criticised for using deceptive methods to collect data from members of the public to improve its own facial recognition, by enticing people to submit to face scans using $5 gift cards.

Cisco uses facial recognition in its Webex video conferencing software “to create name labels in a meeting”. The company asserts that the feature has to be switched on by the user, and that users have ‘complete control’ over facial recognition data.

Other companies in the guide which develop facial recognition include Apple, whose Face ID feature allows users to unlock their iPhones via a face scan, and CyberLink, which calls itself “a world leader in facial recognition and face-attribute technologies”.

Ethical Consumer considers facial recognition technology to be insufficiently regulated, and to pose a severe threat to human rights which far outweigh any potential consumer benefits. Companies found to be involved in the development of facial recognition therefore lost half a mark under Ethical Consumer’s Human Rights category.

image: human head shoulders inside a black eye video lens surveillance facial recognition

Open Source video conferencing

Open-source software is built on source code that is available for anybody to view, modify and improve, as distinct from proprietary software, where the source code is the intellectual property of the company who licenses it to users.

Often, open-source software is developed by groups of volunteer programmers and managed by nonprofit organisations. Proponents proclaim practical advantages – having a large  number of contributors is said to make the code more robust, as errors and bugs are spotted quickly. It can also be modified to suit specific use-cases.

It is also favoured by those concerned with user privacy. Developers of proprietary software are often required to write methods of bypassing security controls, known as backdoors, to allow law enforcement to monitor users.

Open source is inherently more transparent, since anybody is able to view the underlying code from which the software is built. Also, as the software is freely distributed, it rarely requires the disclosure of any personal information in order to download and access it.

We have included two open-source video conferencing platforms in this guide which highlight privacy as a key feature, and do not require any sign up: Jitsi and Jami. Kopano Meet is also built on open-source code and has a tiered pricing model.

MEET.COOP

The Online Meeting Co-operative is a collaboration of several cooperatives around the world who have developed an open-source meeting and conferencing platform at meet.coop.

Its services are available to those who sign up as a member of one of the cooperatives who have developed it, as well as for large online events and conferences.

At the time of writing, the platform was a work-in-progress and did not yet feature a consumer-friendly sign- up process to its full service. However, this was in development and expected to be available in the future. To get involved, visit the website at meet.coop.

Company behind the brand

Verizon Communications Inc. is the US telecommunications giant behind BlueJeans. The company has faced numerous criticisms in recent times over the treatment of its workers, including reports that it ignored complaints of racial discrimination, and accusations of union busting.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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