opinion


A global look at YouTube and its censorship policies

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Alex Williams, Co-Founder of Hosting Data, analyses the approach of the dominant video sharing service to managing the content it hosts.

2020 is YouTube’s 15th anniversary, and the goliath has passed through many evolution cycles since the first video was uploaded in April 2005 – including its role in politics and free speech.

Spending much of my time working as a front-end developer, web designer, and head of a small security consultancy firm in London, YouTube has been more than interesting enough to validate taking some of my precious time to watch its trajectory and evolution.

I’ve seen 46 countries in my life, and you get to appreciate the meaning of freedom when exposed to the variety of norm’s people live in. In that time, I’ve determined there are five central censorship forces YouTube has had to contend with as it’s grown in power to be reckoned with on the international stage:

  1. Activist Groups

YT’s so far gone unscathed in the Stop Hate for Profit movement, of which ‘The North Face’ most notably supported by withdrawing its marketing dollars from Facebook.

  1. Government agendas

Pressure for big influencer social media sites to avoid national security debacles, the sorts of national safety crises seen in the recent coronavirus pandemic, and even repercussions from the US President.

  1. YouTube’s agenda itself

The company takes a strong stand against perceived ‘hate speech’ and has singled out several popular names. The same policy goes for misinformation campaigns like the relationship between 5G and Covid-19. The company is also politically more left-leaning.

  1. Advertisement & investor agendas

In 2019, Google’s partner Alphabet lost 70 billion dollars on the stock exchange as a result arguably of virtue-signalling based censoring of popular content creators. YouTube has since escaped the recent trend of big brands such as Starbucks stepping away from social media in attempts to escape uncontrollable negative online press.

  1. Communal & cultural agendas

The fifth element is a more mysterious bias arising from a symbiosis of user groupthink, which amounts to a general culture of What We Expect From YouTube. For example, there’s speculation of Joe Rogan’s departure from the platform’s partly being a long-standing gripe with the ‘now trending’ section not reflecting actual trending stats.

All of these factors influence what YouTube recommends, demonetize, and bans.

Growing Importance of Online Videos in Telecommunications

Mass online videos were not a viable technology until 1974, when video coding standards took a new form as discrete cosine transform (DCT) featuring lossy compression encoding capabilities. This itself led to MPEG and H.261 video formats, which were at first relegated to the world of online video conferencing.

The mid-90s to mid-2000s were the World Wide Web’s formative years. A few container formats capable of streaming online were released to the public and this was greatly relied on by streaming sites such as the ‘Flash animation’ directory Newgrounds. These were plagued by low latency and low bandwidth limitations until about 2002, when video quality levels that reached your average VHS’ were possible. The stage was set up for mass online video sharing.

Valentine’s Day, 2005: The Beginning of YouTube

At the turn of the millennia, only 3% of Americans had broadband internet access, requiring a few days to download a single full length movie via dial-up. But by 2005 YouTube was able to create a mass online video industry, due to high-speed internet access becoming more adopted, peer-to-peer downloading booming for half a decade leading up, and the introduction of smartphones.

Acquisition by Google

The best ever tech deal occurred in 2006, when Google bought the company for 1.65 billion dollars… At the time this was an unprecedented amount although today it would be the equivalent of YouTube being worth one-thirteenth of Whatsapp’s value. Mark Cuban at the time said Google was “crazy” to take on those legal liabilities and YouTube admitted the price tag was overpriced.

YouTube Censorship 2005-2007

Cuban wasn’t completely wrong (though national safety issues were not on his radar and these came later on, mentioned later in this article). The “People’s Platform” – as dubbed by Time Magazine as the platform who could bridge international relations, creating a new universal understanding – found itself in the sight scopes of the two most powerful international user-generated content regulations: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“DCA 230”). Google’s first DMCA takedown request came from the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers. They successfully got 30,000 media pieces removed.

Despite many more copyrights issues to ensue, they lived up to their People’s Platform title as a result of facilitating a different sort of rights…

YouTube 2008-2013: The Golden Age for Many

By 2007 YouTube estimatedly consumed what the entire World Wide Web did in bandwidth in 2000.

By November 2008, YouTube settled contracts with Lionsgate entertainment, MGM, and CBS. These companies published their own full length films and television episodes on the platform, also with ads – in a move designed to compete with other streaming websites like Hulu, who had agreements with Fox, Disney, and NBC at this point.

Biggest Changes YouTube Made in This Period

With major studios under its belt and new three-strikes (abusive) Community Guidelines rules, YouTube moved into the online film rental industry in January 2010 for UK, US, and Canada users. Over 6000 films became available and by March YouTube started a free streaming service for certain content, e.g. becoming the supposed first ever free online broadcast of a major sport’s event).

In the same month, they redesigned their interface for simplicity, boosting user spend-time on the platform. And in 2012 the ‘recommends’ algorithm engine changed from view-count to watch-time based – this led to a surge in the popularity of gaming streams channels.

Censorship Underbelly and Growing External Censorship Pressures

By 2008 over a half a dozen countries already YouTube blocked including China, Thailand, Turkey, Brazil, and Syria. In an effort to cap a cascade of more, YouTube took a harder stance on content restriction.

The first controversial censorship was in 2007 when anti-torture activist Wael Abbas was suspended and thus prevented from bringing attention to police brutality in Egypt. YT rumordly faced pressure from the Egyptian government but the streaming company said their block was the result of user complaints. More censorship was to follow:

  • 2010: Soul Senator Joseph Lieberman successfully got the platform to remove videos with the Al-Qaeda logo, known terrorists, forcing the company to add a new rule against inciting “others to violence.”
  • 2010: An anti-Sharia video by a British comedian was removed for violating their Community Guidelines.
  • 2011 (a turning point): YouTube was forced to view itself as a vehicle of free expression during the Arab Uprisings where they made a statement that videos showing violence could be allowed if they “have real news value.”

Present Day YouTube Censorship (2012-)

By 2016 YouTube had enough active users that, if it was the number of citizens, would make them the 3rd largest country in the world after China and India. Crucially over a third of YouTube’s most watched news channels were run by ‘citizen journalists’: independents creating breaking news coverages.

Changes in Censorship Policies Since 2012

2012 saw Google report an “alarming” increase in takedown requests from sweeping array of governments, even from inside the United States.

Censorship on Political Premises

2012 began with a call from the White House asking YouTube to block access to a video in Libya and bordering Egypt of an anti-islamic video satirically entitled ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ though it had already been aired on Egyptian television. Other countries demanded the same And strangely they accepted some and rejected others, leading Pakistan to completely block YouTube.

List of Biggest YouTube Censorship Hits & Misses

2016 saw YouTube putting out fires in order to meet their own guidelines. First on the list were automation systems that could target extremist content.

In 2017 advertisements were banned from being shown on content deemed discriminatory or “hateful”. In the same year this unfortunately also involved censorship of a true human rights issue: atrocities on the Syrian battlefield. YouTube censorships and “shadow bans” have since notoriously been all over the place:

  • LGBTQ+ content.
  • Videos and accounts using profanity.
  • Videos promoting gun sales or giving gun demonstrations.
  • Conspiracy videos, most notoriously leading to Infowars being banned.
  • The automated filters accidentally flagged channels and videos to do with the AR mobile game Pokemon Go as well as the massively multiplayer online game Club Penguin, due a false signal mistakingly thinking the game levels abbreviation “CP” stood for child pornography.

Countries Banning/Censoring YouTube

  • China – Employs enormous resources and even trains other authoritarian states on how.
  • Eritrea – On-and-off relationship with YouTube since 2011.
  • Iran – 2012 saw a permanent one after the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ trailer
  • North Korea – YouTube is mostly inaccessible with punishments for attempts.
  • Sudan – Blocked for a video allegedly showing 2010 ballot-fixing.
  • South Sudan – Related to the Innocence of Muslims video.
  • Tajikistan – Most recently for a video of President Rakhmon singing out of tune.
  • Turkmenistan – Since 2009 for security reasons.

Research published by Hosting Data analyses quoting many sources including Freedom House ranks China as one of the worst abusers of Internet freedom. YouTube can only be accessed from Macau, Hong Kong, the Shanghai free-trade Zone, and specific hotels. If YouTube is searched on China’s search engines, the results will be blocked automatically. In spite of this, many of their media run official YouTube accounts and Alexa still ranks YouTube as China’s 11th most popular website.

But information restriction doesn’t rank high in concerns, with human rights one of the most recent infractions being their re-education centers imprisoning millions of Muslims and the recent suppression of Coronavirus whistle-blowers

Final Words

YouTube has been at the spear tip of the digital age. In this time, it’s had to put out an immense number of hodgepodge fires in response to unprecedented changes in communication with social media; and its even more unexpected role in arbitrating politics, human rights, and free speech issues.

They’ve be in double binds more times than you can count and accused of – exporting digital authoritarianism, giving a voice to peoples of censored states, and taking away the livelihoods of honest content creators

In other words, dig your way down the rabbit hole in any corner of YouTube and you’ll find those who think YouTube’s not gone far enough with its censorship policies and those who think it’s gone way too far already.

 

Ever since he graduated from the University of London in 2008, Alex Williams has worked as a front end developer both independently and in conjunction with teams from all over the world. After a few years of specialized experience working on websites for small businesses, he decided to start a blog of his own. Hosting Data is primarily aimed at UK citizens although most of the topics he and his team write about are applicable to worldwide audiences.


One comment

  1. Avatar mitch holder 05/09/2020 @ 12:36 am

    Alex Williams, it is time to do another article, the week of September 1st 2020 has seen vast censorship on these platforms. I am getting lies presented as answers from Scott at Youtube support, he is deflecting about the ramp up of Youtube’s censorship practices. I am happy to share with you any correspondence I have had with him.

    This was really hard to find and I am in increasingly interested person in these vents and seek allies to discuss and ultimately overcome these measures for the benefit of society.

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