YouTube has been facing backlash from both creators and viewers this past week. Normally when this sentence is stated, it means YouTube has changed the layout of the front page (just look at these comments) or some other seemingly trivial change, but this uproar has resulted from a bit of more serious issue: freedom of speech.
In addition to the rise in copyright battles between users, YouTube has begun removing AdSense from videos that they deem inappropriate or not advertiser friendly. For channels running large scale productions, taking away monetization could potentially act as a form of shutting down the channel once they are no longer able to make an adequate living from ad revenue. The potential to push creators from the site can be seen as a move of censorship to slowly weed out channels that do not fit with the company’s ideals. YouTube gives a variety of criteria that they can use to remove monetization from videos. This varies from simply profanity or sexual content to discussion of sensitive topics. The statement is left vague enough to leave the site’s users wondering what exactly counts as fitting these categories. For instance, Shane Dawson has claimed not to have had any of his videos demonetized despite using sexual humor while the vlogbrothers channel had monetization removed on a video making jokes on phallically shaped vegetables. Not to mention that most news channels on the site could have all monetization removed for discussing “controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown.”
This new censorship policy recalls the recent controversy over the removal of Twitter user Milo Yiannopoulos after tweeting critiques of the new Ghostbusters film, in particular tweeting at Leslie Jones in a derogatory manner that egged followers on to toss racial slurs her way. This marked the first time a big user had been permanently banned from the site. Unlike YouTube's policy which claims the goal of remaining advertiser-friendly, this policy was focused on creating a more positive user experience by removing users and tweets that are considered harassment. But what precisely is harassment? The policy is again vague without a definition of harassment and leaves the potential for abuse by users accusing each other of harassment after disputing online. This trend is already been seen in the use of copyright law on YouTube; creators with large fanbases are suing smaller creators for using pieces of their video in critiques that should be protected under copyright law, but the ensuing legal battles are simply too costly.
Either company could use their new policies to manipulate the content on their site to mimic the agenda of the company or restrict the viewpoints expressed to those that are generally accepted and not overly progressive or radical.
Many are crying out that the sites are violating freedom of speech. After all, we flock to the internet to safely voice our opinions from a distance. As companies though, they are within their own rights to censor what is seen or heard from the site; users must agree to their terms of service to use the platform provided. While, in an ideal world, the sites would use more specific language to refer to what constitutes a violation or flag users with consistency for violation (for instance, multiple hate groups including white supremacists and Neo-Nazis exist on Twitter while Milo longer does), I am unsure that this will occur.
Some online censorship is necessary to create a pleasant user experience and not feel like you are trapped in the middle of an X-box Live chat with twelve-year-olds screaming whatever slurs they know, a middle ground must be established. If YouTube and Twitter do not strike this middle ground soon, we may see the rise of a new content platform in their wake, one that allows uninterrupted sharing of opinions. As it is, the new YouTube changes have sparked the hashtag #YouTubeIsOverParty. The social media giants are unlikely to die over night, but the opening for a new platform is surely being created.