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YouTube: invisibilisation to benefit advertizing

LQDN is publishing here an op-ed by Okhin.

Paris, 10 April 2017 — Online video platforms (most notably YouTube and Facebook) have surpassed television in audience count, making these media extremely important in terms of how they represent society. They constitute a place of public expression, run by private companies, which permit many persons, cultures, subcultures, and social groups to exist, to communicate among themselves, and to be seen. Certainly there are initiatives and free alternatives, but none of them can hope to reach the level of presence of these platforms.

The presence of minorities in these media of mass entertainment (TV, series, films, video games, etc.) is at best problematic. The Internet lets anyone create and have access to content that might tackle this problem by giving them a voice, letting them share their experience, and recognizing them. That is one of the main reasons for the success of these media platforms and user-created content.

YouTube, Facebook and other massive digital platforms have become critical for the public space presence of those minorities, becoming a major component in the visibility of those people, their struggles, their discussions, or just as a means of struggling against isolation, of confronting points of view and situations, and of mutual aid.

In mid-March, YouTube (which belongs to Google-Alphabet) updated their - optional - restricted mode, which is intended to "screen out potentially mature content that you may prefer not to see or don’t want others in your family to see".

YouTube displays that mode as a parental control feature with which parents need not decide anything, and surrender to YouTube the choice of what their children may see; or for use on publicly available terminals, such as libraries and schools. The goal is to ensure that nobody who uses those terminals may stumble on content that might shock them.

The most visible consequence of this update was making most content produced by LGBT authors, or about even remotely LGBT matters (the word "gay" in a cat video is enough), unreachable to people using this restricted mode. The update elicited great anger in the LGBT community, forcing YouTube to make ">public apologies, and finally admit that their screening mechanism doesn't work.

In a statement released to specialized press, YouTube explained that health, politics and sexuality were amongst matters that could lead content to be classified as restricted. That definition actually enables YouTube to target nearly any content and flag it as restricted. In the same statement, YouTube adds that user reports and previous restricted content uploads by the same person, were also criteria for flagging content. The more content is flagged as restricted, the more likely it is that their creator will be flagged again.

The regulation of a public space by private interests should not be analysed through the prism of morality, but rather through that of the platforms' business model. The goal of those platforms is neither to display the content the user requested, nor to allow content creators to publish their creations, but instead to display the right ad, on the right content, to the right person, in order to fulfil the requirements of their advertising customers. Havas and Procter & Gamble recently threatened to end their partnerships with Google in light of Google's inability to correctly categorize and label its content. These businesses want to be able to guarantee their clients that no advertising will appear alongside content that might damage their brands1.

This problem is as old as advertising on the Internet. Pop-up advertising was created for this in the 1990s (it took almost a decade to stop this plague). At the time, advertisers complained that they didn't want their advertising, and thus their brands, to be associated with things they disapproved of - for instance, pornography was widely mentioned at the time.

Beyond the simple case of YouTube, we have to remember that, unfortunately, this is only one extremely public case among that many more incursions on freedom of expression for the benefit of the advertisers. Female nudity, for example, is banned from different social media or private software platforms. That which has recently affected queer persons and communities could perfectly well soon affect videos defending political ideas —whether it has to do with candidates to an election or just active participants, and potentially anyone whose ideas displease an advertiser.

YouTube's restricted mode scandal in the form it exploded in the last few days thus seems like the reaction of a business faced with the threats of its clients. It's an attempt to create a public space entirely dedicated to presenting advertising, stripped of content potentially annoying to a brand, realizing Patrick Le Lay's dream of maximizing the profitability of the "available brain time".

If pressure from advertisers brings YouTube to bend to their demands, restricted mode will probably be enabled by default. If restricted mode remains optional but is enabled by secondary schools, how will it be possible to do online research if the platforms don't provide any content that could potentially be politicized? Or dealing with sexuality? How to give access to information about abortion —which is already complicated— if it is not available?

Some attempts by decentralized media whose economic model doesn't depend on advertising already exist, but without threatening in the least the oligopoly composed of the centralized platforms. However, one of the Internet's strengths resides in its decentralization, the possibility to offer everyone to put his content on line. Yet the silo effect and the concentration of content by a few private businesses which control the entire production chain out through broadcast, passing ultimately through the management of income, poses the question of respect for the rights of perceived communities as a danger to their economic model.

It is becoming ever more critical, if we want to live in a society that offers diversity of opinions, of cultures, of ideas necessary for a democracy that includes everyone and everything, to reduce our dependency on these platforms. The dream of a neutral, free, and decentralized Internet is still vivid, and many groups are working on it (from Framasoft to Yunohost passing by and a large part of the hacker spaces), but a lot remains to accomplish. The availability of these tools, their use for and by everyone, requires more than make the code libre/open source. If we really want to get these tools out of our "garages", the work that these groups have begun has to reach actively into activist spaces.