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Facebook Launches Rival To Video-Meeting App Zoom

Facebook users can invite their friends to the new Messenger Rooms service, even if those people are not on the social network.
Facebook users can invite their friends to the new Messenger Rooms service, even if those people are not on the social network.

Facebook is rolling out a video-call competitor to Zoom, aimed at groups of up to 50 people.

The new feature, called Messenger Rooms, allows anyone with a Facebook account to create a video meeting and invite their friends to join, even if those people are not Facebook users.

Video conferencing has become a staple for many people stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic. It's how they keep up with work, school, family, friends and activities.

Zoom has become wildly popular, with 300 million people now participating in meetings on its platform every day, the company said on Wednesday.

However, Zoom's ease of use — initially, users just needed to click a single link to join a meeting — has made the service a target for abuse. In "Zoombombing" attacks, unwanted intruders have disrupted meetings with pornography and racist harassment. Zoom has since taken steps to improve security, including requiring participants to enter passwords by default.

Facebook has the potential to reach a much broader audience. It says it has seen surging use of its two messaging apps, Messenger and WhatsApp, with more than 700 million people making voice or video calls every day.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a livestreamed announcement on Friday that the ability to connect over live video has "emerged as especially important during this pandemic." Beyond video conferencing for work, he said, "there are even more social uses of this, just for people to stay connected."

Messenger Rooms looks eerily similar to Zoom and functions in much the same way. Participants can join without downloading an app. It also mirrors elements of the popular video app Houseparty: Facebook users will see notifications at the top of their news feed about new "rooms" their friends have created, so they can "drop in" as they want.

"I've really enjoyed testing this," Zuckerberg said. He described dropping into rooms with his friends as "this neat, serendipitous and spontaneous interaction."

The company said Messenger Rooms will have default settings to protect meetings from intruders. People who create the rooms can control who is allowed to join. They can make a room open to anyone they are friends with on Facebook, or they can invite specific people.

Hosts can also create a link to invite people who are not on Facebook. Those links are less secure, as recipients could share them with others, who could then join rooms. Facebook will not require passwords to join. The platform says it is reducing the potential for abuse by allowing hosts to "lock" rooms so that no new participants can join. And if a host removes someone, the room automatically locks.

Users can also report a room for violating Facebook's rules.

The social network is likely to face skepticism over how it treats users' personal data, given its patchy track record on privacy. Facebook said it does not listen to or watch video and audio calls, but it will collect data from rooms "to provide the service and improve the product experience." It said it will not run ads in rooms, and audio and video won't be used for ad targeting.

People without Facebook accounts can join meetings from their Web browsers. Facebook said it will collect some information on them, including what device and browser they are using, and ask them to share their names to identify themselves in meetings.

Facebook will roll out Messenger Rooms worldwide over the next few weeks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.