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Zoombombings Make Iowa Legislators Rethink Virtual Hearings

The state Legislature has continued its use of virtual sessions to allow virtual participation in the legislative process. But as Zoombombing occurrences have increased in recent weeks, some are reconsidering the access.

Zoom Video Communications Headquarters campus in San Jose, California
(TNS) — Swastikas and pornographic videos have been among the unwelcome visitors to legislative hearings at the Iowa Capitol in recent weeks.

Some users of the video conferencing application Zoom, which the Iowa Senate uses to allow for virtual viewing of and participation from across the state in hearings on proposed legislation, have on multiple occasions posted offensive or graphic images or videos while those hearings were taking place.

The incidents have Senate Republicans, who by virtue of their majority establish policy in the chamber, rethinking their use of Zoom in those legislative hearings.

Senate staff already has taken steps in an attempt to decrease the likelihood of such future incidents over Zoom. They will continue to monitor user participation, a Senate Republican spokesman said.

The use of Zoom for legislative hearings was first deployed during the 2021 session, which began during one of the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom video gave interested Iowans an option to observe or even participate in the legislative process without traveling to the Capitol. That option was particularly beneficial at a time when public health experts still recommended against large gatherings in indoor spaces.

Lawmakers have kept using the Zoom feature in the legislative sessions since. Iowans with an internet connection can watch and listen to all Senate subcommittee and committee meetings on Zoom, and during some subcommittee hearings can testify on proposed legislation if they wish.

The Senate has a television in each legislative hearing room, equipped with a microphone and speaker that allows Zoom users to monitor the hearing at the Capitol, and allows those at the Capitol to interact with individuals over Zoom.

That feature is now endangered after the spate of incidents that are known by the slang term "Zoom-bombing.'

Recently, a series of Senate subcommittee hearings on Gov. Kim Reynolds' sweeping proposal to reorganize state government was Zoom-bombed multiple times. During the hearing, a pornographic video took over the screen on multiple occasions.

Iowa Sen. Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig who is guiding the governor's state government realignment bill through the Senate and thus was in the room when the Zoom-bombings occurred, has said at multiple hearings since that the incidents endanger the Senate's continued use of Zoom and thus Iowans' ability to participate.

Caleb Hunter, spokesman for Senate Republicans, said staff has attempted to create safeguards that will halt further incidents.

"The Iowa Senate has implemented new protocols to address the incidences of improper behavior on Zoom during Senate subcommittee meetings," Hunter said. "Permitting access to the lawmaking process through this feature has been well-received and improved transparency. Incidents of this type must stop."

Hunter said if more incidents occur, Senate Republicans will consider further constraints upon the use of Zoom, including possibly restricting users' ability to participate in hearings.

The Iowa House, which also is led by majority Republicans, uses a different video conferencing system, Cisco Webex. In the House system, interested Iowans can only observe legislative proceedings — they cannot participate remotely.

The House has experienced no reported issues like the Zoom-bombing in the Senate.

(c)2023 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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