The Best Video Conferencing Software for Democracy Advocates 2022
Video conferencing was becoming an important tool for online collaboration well before March 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic solidified its central role in modern workplaces. For organizations like the National Democratic Institute, this also meant that many program activities also had to move online, and two years later it is hard to imagine how civil society groups, parliaments, political parties or election observers functioned without video conferencing tools.
While the primacy of video conferencing in workplace collaboration has meant that we all spend a lot more time looking into cameras, it has also had some unexpected benefits, especially for organizations that collaborate with international partners. Because these tools enable affordable, instantaneous and global communication, global organizations are better able to elevate the voices of field staff and partners who are closest to program implementation but physically distant from decision-making that happens at the headquarters.
But users beware, moving conversations online can also make your conversations less secure. Please take a look at our Cybersecurity Handbook for more information about Communicating and Storing Data Securely.
This blog focuses on tools that support larger group calls and have collaboration features like screen sharing or breakout rooms. Choosing the best tool for your call will help make sure things run smoothly and securely so that you can focus on your objectives.
Without further delay, here are DemTech’s top five video conferencing tools (Signal, Zoom, Webex, Google Meet, and Jitsi Meet) for democracy advocates and actors.
Signal is a messaging platform that has prioritized privacy and security since its inception. While the tool has historically been known for secure text messaging, it also supports video calls and recently added support for end-to-end encrypted video calls for up to 40 attendees. An open-source project, Signal also benefits from a large community of developers that help ensure that the codebase is secure. While Signal does not have the same level of advanced collaboration features as Zoom or Webex, it does allow screen sharing. Signal is by far the best tool for users for whom security is a premium and who don’t need advanced collaboration, simultaneous interpretation or webinar features.
Signal is a non-profit organization that is donor-supported and can therefore provide the service free to users.
Signal is among the most secure tools for online video conferencing, but keep in mind that only your contacts who already use Signal can be added to a Signal group. If you need a conferencing tool that doesn’t require sharing attendee’s phone numbers, consider Jitsi Meet.
Little known before the pandemic, Zoom gained prominence in 2020 and is now the leading conferencing tool in 44 countries. Unlike Google Meet which only works with an Internet browser, Zoom users must download and regularly update an application on their computers and mobile devices. Zoom has added a browser-based tool, but most users still use the downloaded application.
The inconvenience of having to download a separate application is made up for by the additional tools available to meeting hosts, such as the ability to mute individuals and record meetings in the cloud. Where Zoom really stands out, however, is as a tool for webinars and with its advanced accessibility features. Automated transcription and closed captioning, while not perfect, is a great accessibility feature especially in contexts where participants are not fluent in the language used on the call. Zoom also has features that enable professional interpreters to offer simultaneous interpretation in multiple languages, a feature that has been particularly handy for NDI programs that support cross-regional dialog.
Zoom offers a tiered pricing structure per user, including a free tier that limits meetings to 40 minutes and offers no cloud storage. The base plan offers 100 attendees per call.
In the early days of the pandemic, Zooms security features, or lack thereof, came under heavy scrutiny as the tool gained prominence. You may remember “Zoom Bombing” where hackers could gain unauthorized access to ongoing video conferences. Many of Zoom's security vulnerabilities have been fixed, but it is still not the best tool for users for whom security and privacy are a priority. For instance, end-to-end encryption is not enabled by default and has to be turned on by users. Many Zoom features are also not available when encryption is turned on, such as breakout rooms and recording to the cloud.
Cisco’s Webex has many of the same features as Zoom so the two products are somewhat interchangeable. Webex has a better reputation for security than Zoom, but also a worse reputation for user-friendliness.
Webex also offers a free tier that limits meetings to 50 minutes with up to 100 attendees per call.
Webex touts its zero-trust security as industry leading, but just like Zoom many of these features are not turned on by default for users. Moreover, some features, such as participants joining via telephone, do not support end-to-end encryption so users need to be careful about how they use Webex in contexts where privacy is a priority.
Google Meet is Google’s answer to the video conferencing boom. While not as feature-rich as Zoom or Webex, Meet provides transport-layer encrypted video calls for up to 100 participants, and plans to add end-to-end encryption in the future. The tool is primarily browser-based so attendees are not required to download the app to join a meeting from their computer, but joining a call does require attendees to sign into a Google account. Meet is great for larger meetings, but is less effective for webinars or meetings that require simultaneous interpretation.
Meet’s free pricing tier also enables meetings of up to 50 minutes for 100 people.
All data in Meet is encrypted in transit by default between the client and Google for video meetings on a web browser. Just as with Zoom and Webex, joining by telephone uses the carrier’s network and so it might not be encrypted. Overall the cybersecurity standards are very good, but Signal might again be a better choice in sensitive contexts where end-to-end encryption is important.
Jitsi Meet is a free and open-source software that provides video calling and many of the same advanced collaboration features as Google Meet, such as screen sharing. Jitsi Meet is browser-based so there is not an app or special software to download. By default Jitsi Meet provides transport-layer encryption between the browser and the Jitsi Meet server of your choice; however, an end-to-end encryption feature is also available. A key benefit of Jitsi that sets itself apart from other products is that Jitsi does not require attendees to create user accounts. This is particularly useful in high-risk environments where the privacy of participants is a priority. To set up a meeting on Jitsi Meet, you can go to meet.jit.si, type in a meeting code and share that link (via a secure channel such as Signal) with your desired participants. For additional privacy, you can consider using Jitsi Meet servers hosted by organization’s with a strong public commitment to privacy such as Greenhost.
Jitsi Meet is free for up to 75 attendees with no time limit, but if you want to host the software on your own server you will need to consider the costs of hosting, domain name registration, and software maintenance and security. Greenhost provides Jitsi hosting as a managed service, meaning they will host Jitsi Meet for you, taking responsibility for software and server maintenance. 8x8 also offers Jitsi Meet as a software-as-a-service, the same service model used by Zoom, Webex and Google Meet, but pricing is based on monthly active users.
A huge caveat with using Jitsi Meet for end-to-end encrypted video conferences is that all individual users will need to enable end-to-end encryption themselves. In order to prevent “Zoom Bombing,” make sure to create random meeting room names and to use strong passcodes to protect your video calls.