Last year, as the world adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic and city governments started meeting remotely, many turned to the video conferencing platform Zoom to conduct meetings.
Juneau’s city assembly started holding its committee and regular meetings via Zoom in early 2020. While many say it expanded access, allowing people from all over to weigh-in without having to travel to City Hall, it also opened up those meetings, and Assembly members, to potential abuse. And right now, it’s not easy to track down abusers and hold them accountable.
City officials estimate that there have been about a dozen instances of what’s known as “Zoom bombing” or disrupting a meeting. Zoom bombers have successfully hijacked other public meetings in Alaska and throughout the rest of the world, often with lewd, racist or pornographic material.
“We’ve had a few at the assembly level, we’ve had a few at the school board level, we’ve had a few in some committee board time meetings,” said City Attorney Rob Palmer during a Monday evening meeting.
City Assembly member Carole Triem was targeted during an Assembly meeting.
People who were listening describe a man calling in and making lewd comments about Triem’s body. There were also graphic sounds played at one point.
Triem described it as a startling and disgusting thing to have to listen to while she was at work.
“Certainly, as a woman, that kind of thing has happened before,” she said. “But, no. Not in any kind of official capacity and it was very embarrassing that it happened in this public meeting where I think probably hundreds of people were watching on Facebook.”
When it happened, no one seemed to know how to respond. The city clerk who was moderating immediately worked to remove the person from the meeting, but that took several seconds. No one hit the mute button.
“When it happened, I was just too shocked to kind of feel anything,” Triem said. “I had quite a few fellow assembly members who spoke up publicly in the meeting and who texted me. And I really appreciated that but I was just kind of like, I don’t know – ‘let’s just get on with the meeting’.”
City officials say they’ve changed the way they’ve run meetings, but they don’t want to describe exactly how they’ll respond when it happens again in order to prevent someone from circumventing their plans. They did say that someone’s hand is always near the mute button.
Juneau police launched a criminal investigation into who was harassing Triem. But, Palmer said Zoom, the company software the city is using to host the meetings, isn’t cooperating.
“It has been incredibly difficult working with Zoom to try to track down where those bombs came from,” he said.
That’s, in part, because the city doesn’t have anything in its local code that identifies Zoom bombing as a crime.
Palmer is working on that now. He said once that law gets on the books, they can force the company to turn over any identifying information the company has on Triem’s harasser and anyone else who bombs a city meeting.
Triem said she never really thought that they’d find the guy who called in to harass her, and she’s not really focused on that.
Instead, she wants to go through the process of making Zoom bombing a crime and send a message to the public that it isn’t acceptable. And, she wants the city to back her up, publicly.
“It would really mean a lot to me because I was a little disappointed that — other than my few fellow assembly members who spoke up at that meeting, it wasn’t really addressed at all,” she said.
Editor’s note: We’ve updated this story to reflect that while city officials initially refused to make a full recording of the Assembly meeting during which Carole Triem was harassed available, it has since agreed to provide it to KTOO.