An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Censorship at You Tube

There now exists a kind of censorship that looks like an off-shoot of "commercial" censorship in which a business suppresses a given expression by means of refusing to transmit it. Of course, businesses are free to transmit whatever, I get that. The trouble comes when a business represents itself as "open" and "promoting freedom of expression" as an advertising and marketing "message" but then pulls the content anyway. You Tube started out as a small operation with these ideals in mind. Then Google ate it.

This becomes one of those "privately owned public commons problems." On the one hand the openness of the internet provides us with the "many to many" mode of mass communication. But then when a 500 lbs. gorilla like Google eats every platform that has any degree of success in facilitating this kind of communication, you have the removal of the public commons into a private domain.

In two instances (that I know of, there may be more) a small band of close-mined jackasses have misused the social networking features on You Tube to attack videos they do not like. Creationists and zealots have flagged as offensive videos without any "dirty words" (or the same sort of dirty words that the average junior high student hears and says every day) or "obscene" visual imagery. They have filed bogus DCMA complaints and also used "vote-boting" to lower a videos ratings artificially. The vote-boting works by deceiving Google's automated processes into thinking that the video in question is some crap that no one likes. Used together, these tactics make a given video look like it has only crap content, has few or no viewers thereby making it "safe" to remove and in some cases even an entire channel is also "safe" to remove. The principle victims of this censorship campaign have been atheist science-geek types who post satirical/humorous or serious science-oriented videos that dispute creationist and/or authoritarian religious views very directly and effectively. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway because I'm pissed off) if one's own views/videos are so self-evidently clear, convincing and true, why then would you have to censor videos that express disagreement or derision?

But the last time Google/You Tube tried to take the easy way out and allow a small group of users to manipulate it into censoring a video or a channel, this behavior backfired. They tried to squash a British comedian named "Pat Condell" last Fall and that blew up in their faces as his viewers (and I proudly among them) posted his videos far and wide and raised hell with You Tube. Now another Brit has need of that same kind of assistance.

Thunderf00t has posted a video explaining his difficulties with You Tube's management in dealing with vote-boting, false flagging and false DMCA complaints against his videos. He suggests sending e-mail to You Tube's advertising address, rather than its help address, as You Tube really does have to read every message in its advertising mail box or risk losing business.

What do we want You Tube to do?

I suggest if you write to You Tube as Thunderf00t asks, that you ask them to fix the holes in their social networking functionality, in particular to prevent "vote-boting." Also ask them to enforce their terms of service cudgel on the users falsely flagging videos and more importantly on those users filing false DMCA complaints. (BTW, the threadbare basis for these bogus DMCA complaints is the use of another user's video in one's own - a use very specifically protected under "fair use" as small portions copied for the purpose of criticism and parody have always enjoyed the affirmative defense of the fair use doctrine).

Other things you can do:

You can go to Thunderf00t's channel then subscribe to it and also add it as a "friend." The advantage of adding it as your "friend" is that in the future if Google/You Tube/500 lbs. gorilla tries to remove his channel (again) then he can distribute word of this to us and therefore mobilize a reaction. You Tube also looks at subscriptions to see how "popular" a channel is. Lots of subscribers will make them think twice about mindlessly blocking/removing someone's video and/or channel. From the link above you can view his videos, including the "Why do people laugh at creationists" series which first triggered the efforts to make You Tube remove them.

I noticed when looking for the video detailing his troubles with You Tube that numerous people have re-posted the video as a way to prevent Google/500 lbs. gorilla/You Tube from taking it down. If you have a You Tube account and the technical facility to do so, you may want to repost it yourself. I have also rated all of the re-posts that I could find as a way to make automated censorship more difficult.

You may also consider subscribing to and adding as friends other channels not presently under attack that have content you like, just as a preventative measure.

Keep in mind, just in case I did not make clear, that I do not accuse You Tube of taking the side of creationists or purposely censoring science or political/religious views. Google is a business taking the easy way as much as possible to reduce costs and maximize profits. This is what businesses do. A relatively small number of dishonest authoritarian kooks has figured out a way to exploit this corporate behavior to their advantage. If we want to keep You Tube or the internet in general a place for freely expressing and finding meaningful content, we need to act. If the 500 lbs. gorilla figures out that it's angering 10 times more viewers that the ones it's appeasing, its self-interest will kick in. Otherwise, You Tube will devolve into another Fox News channel.

Update, Feb 27, 2009: Thunderf00t has a new video detailing the victory over censorship. He asks that people stop e-mailing You Tube because his account has been restored, his channel open and all attempts to suppress his videos have ceased. You can view his third video on this matter. It includes some details of the vagueness of You Tube's acceptable use policy.

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog, hopefully there will be enough noise about it to make YouTube correct the problem with votebotting.

    Sure is sad to see thunderf00t get shafted when he's only ever been looking for a better system to be in place - he's pretty much helping out Youtube for free.