Maxwell Barna discusses YouTube’s new content guidelines, and explains how they could be a very bad thing for freedom of speech.
The internet had another major freak out a couple of weeks ago after YouTube started acting on the new “advertiser-friendly” content guidelines that the media company announced in June.
Ordinarily I’d tell everyone to stop complaining and buck up, but this is actually one of those times where I think everyone is right—YouTube has made a grievous error against not just the content producers that helped make it the internet staple it is, but the billions of people who visit the video-sharing service monthly.
What’s most nerve-wracking about the new content guidelines is what they mean for the future of free speech on the internet—and beyond. The potential consequences here could be not just severe, but completely catastrophic. But before I get too ahead of myself, let’s talk about it.
What Did YouTube Do?
Way back in June, YouTube announced a change to its content guidelines to make them more advertiser-friendly. At the time, not that many people cared about it, but that’s probably because they didn’t read the new rules.
It caused an uproar in the last few weeks—three months after YouTube dropped the news—because YouTube finally began sending emails out to content creators to inform them that some of their videos had been demonetized.
In a nutshell, YouTube introduced a series of “Advertiser-friendly content guidelines” for content creators who advertise with them. It doesn’t apply to the “average” user, and only affects people who use the Google Advertising platform to monetize their content.
The terms are more than a little ridiculous, and essentially prohibit their content creators—some of whom have been with the company for over 10 years—from discussing anything that is even slightly controversial.
YouTube’s Attack on Free Speech
To be more specific, the new guidelines prohibit things like sexually suggestive content, including sexual humor and, presumably, Emily Ratajkowski’s topless selfies; violence, including display of serious injury and “events related to violent extremism”; inappropriate language, including any and all profanity and vulgar language (are you fucking kidding me?); the promotion of drugs and regulated substances, including selling, using and abuse of such items; and talking about controversial or sensitive subjects (including “political conflicts”—like presidential elections).
In this case, some might think that YouTube is only looking out for its advertisers’ interests by trying to, for instance, not place a Coca-Cola ad at the bottom of a viral video news story talking about that one time French police found 815 pounds of cocaine inside of a Coca-Cola factory.
It’s Understandable, but to What Extent? At What Cost?
It seems like YouTube has lost touch with its primary audience for the sake of advertiser money. I understand everybody needs to eat (including the execs at YouTube), but the gross censorship of user-generated content on their medium is flat-out ridiculous, especially after the introduction of their commercial-free, subscription-based platform, YouTube Red.
A perfect parallel to draw would be Spotify prohibiting its artists from expressing free thought or discussing controversial topics in their music, so that Volkswagen spots weren’t playing in between Schoolboy Q songs about life in the ghetto.
And since I’m writing about it—what about musical artists whose songs cover prohibited subject matter? Are all their videos now unmonetized? Or is there a difference between people who make YouTube money off their music, and people who make YouTube money off of other creative intellectual property? How does YouTube plan on discerning between the two?
Censorship Through Demonetization
Some of YouTube’s most popular content creators, including MrRepzion, Philip DeFranco, LeafyIsHere and plenty of others, have posted videos condemning the harsh content guidelines as censorship through demonetization, and try as I might, I’m having a hard time saying they’re wrong.
If you look at the actual verbiage of the new content guidelines, you’ll see that they’re exceptionally—and purposefully—vague. There’s a small section in the preface of a small-but-sweeping list of now-unacceptable content that says, “includes, but is not limited to.” That “but is not limited to” part essentially means, “and if we forgot about something, we reserve the right to fuck you over later without explanation.”
That is an incredibly slippery slope that basically gives YouTube and its Arbiters Of Advertiser-Friendly Justice the power to arbitrarily demonetize and censor anything they find offensive or too controversial.
This week it could be commentary on a police shooting. Next week it could be criticism of a political candidate. Next year it could be simply for saying naughty words during a DIY eyeshadow tutorial.
YouTube and Citizen Journalism
Whether you realize it or not, YouTube is more than just a place where people post videos of their cats, songs from all our favorite obscure artists or videos of people no one gives a shit about playing videogames that also no one gives a shit about.
YouTube actually brings in over a billion individual users every single month. Billions of people with billions of different interests all flock to the site to view the content they love. Whether it be cat videos, DIY tutorials, product reviews or even **gasp** valuable independent journalism or legitimately intelligent content, YouTube’s viewership is something incredible.
YouTube has proven invaluable in the movement for a more socially conscious citizenry. Tens of thousands of users use the platform to discuss current events, report news or draw attention to meaningful discussion-worthy events.
Let’s not forget how integral YouTube was in spreading news about the Ferguson riots, the shooting of Charlie Kinsey, the shooting of Alton Sterling and honestly a million other incredibly important events or issues—from countries engulfed in civil war to general social commentary. All of these videos, channels and people may be affected by YouTube’s new content guidelines, and the possibility of the platform being devoid of things like these is actually pretty terrifying.
You should be nervous. We should all be nervous.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
If YouTube was a platform chockfull of cat videos and videos of people playing video games (and a lot of the time, it is), I wouldn’t really give a shit about the new content guidelines.
But over the last decade or so, YouTube has established itself as a beacon of free speech and free thought for people the world over. Aside from allowing incredible content creators to make a living who may have otherwise slipped through the media industry’s cracks, YouTube provides people with a voice to talk about things that may not otherwise be brought to light. These new “advertiser-friendly” content guidelines aim to change that.
YouTube isn’t just playing the role of high school nun, walking around the Fall Dance with a ruler and making sure kids are dancing 10 inches apart; it’s playing the role of Gestapo officer, silencing opposing viewpoints at every turn of the people who want to speak out against—or even simply discuss—the status quo.
I think people are so hurt and feel betrayed by these new content guidelines because YouTube’s audience—and creators—forgot that YouTube is a money-making platform, not a free speech forum. Are they acting legally with their new censorship scheme? Absolutely. It’s all 100 percent legal. Is it fair? Of course not, and the only people on the losing end of these new guidelines are users, viewers and creators (AKA the lifeblood of their entire business).
Maybe it’s time for creators to look elsewhere.
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- Words: Maxwell Barna
- Lead image: Pexels