You (Cannot Upload That) Tube

YouTube’s censorship criteria does not favour true freedom of expression

Voltaire once said that there was an “absurdity in intolerance.” Yet today, this absurdity seems to have sustained. Even as the advent of the internet seemed to liberate information making it accessible to anyone connected to the world wide web, the unreasonable suppression of certain thoughts and opinions continues.

In early August YouTube, a popular video-sharing website, announced that it will be strengthening its fight against “hate speech” and “violent extremism.” In an official blog post on the matter, the company said that as well taking down videos which contravened the law, there will also be a tougher stance on “controversial religious or supremacist content.” While such videos would not be completely removed from the platform, YouTube will make greater efforts to ensure that such content would be as accessible before being flagged by not being recommended 0r monetised. These videos will also not have “key features including comments, suggested videos and likes.” Whenever users search for “sensitive keywords” they will be diverted to playlists organised by YouTube which “directly confront and debunk violent extremist messages.”

YouTube said that it will identify supposedly extremist content through the use of machine learning and human review. Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, said that by making this content harder to find, it “strikes the right balance between free expression and access to information without promoting extremely offensive viewpoints.”

Free Except Not

YouTube is right to take down clearly violent extremist content. But the company has now ventured down a dangerous slippery slope. To begin with, suppressing certain viewpoints on the grounds that they are offensive is not free expression but limited expression. Unless the views being expressed are ones which are calling for violence or are at very least undoubtedly advocating violence, they should be tolerated no matter how vulgar or fallacious they may be.

As such the powerful position of YouTube warrants a far more tolerant approach. The company deals with around 400 video uploads per minute, making the website home to a great wealth of information. It is only by being exposed to these varying opinions and viewpoints that people can shape and strengthen their own and creates an environment for informed debate which will eventually allow the best ideas to flourish. Lauren Southern, a right-wing political commentator, recently had a video on the demerits of communism age-restricted, with YouTube explaining that any content which it deemed “shocking, sensational, or disrespectful…is prohibited.”

All opinions, including those which may appear ignorant or abhorrent to some, should be allowed to stand so that they can be open to scrutiny. Not allowing people to think for themselves by diverting them away from those viewpoints does not achieve this and the quality of debate and scrutiny diminishes.

Even if YouTube were to improve its machine learning capabilities combined with the involvement of third parties such as the No Hate Speech Movement in its efforts to crack down on unwanted views, it will remain a formidable task. It is up against the internet after all; any information being suppressed is likely to be revived due to the greater attention it would attract and the ubiquitous nature of the online world. This ‘Streisand effect’ makes any attempt to control the kind of information swirling around online a pointless exercise.

YouTube should thus be careful about abusing its powerful position as a moderator as well as a content provider. Taking on a more tolerant approach, or at least a review process with a much higher threshold, would be welcomed. In Google’s words, it would be doing “the right thing.”