YouTube’s Tactics Re. Article 13 Are the Real Concern

When a media conglomerate is the subject of a news story, we expect the news organization owned by the parent company to acknowledge that relationship in its reporting.  So, when ABC News reports a story, positive or negative, about the Disney Corporation, it is standard practice that the reporter remind viewers that she is talking about her ultimate employer.  Unfortunately, the paradigm is very different when it comes to new media companies like YouTube, which can leverage the global reach of its platform (fueled by the capabilities of Google) to evangelize any message that serves its policy interests. 

In a new guest post on The Trichordist, Volker Rieck lays out the manner in which YouTube uses the power the platform to influence public debate (i.e. scare the bejesus out of people) when seeking a policy outcome favorable to the company.  After CEO Susan Wojcicki addressed the community of YouTube creators in a blog post and video warning them that Article 13 of the EU Digital Single Market Directive threatens their livelihoods, she got the response she was looking for.  As Rieck describes…

“Wild claims circulated that YouTube channel operators would already see their livelihoods threatened in 2019, that Article 13 was a censorship law, and so on. The platform helped the videos made in response to its own appeal to become highly visible and to reach wide audiences by displaying them on user home pages and by categorizing them as “trending.” Three of the top 5 videos in the YouTube trending charts at the beginning of November transported these dystopian visions.”

So, apropos my intro, even if the claims and assumptions made about Article 13 were accurate—and they are not—it should be more than a little frightening that a corporation with the scope of influence of YouTube can so effectively shape reality in regard to any matter of public policy.  To quote a recent post by Neil Turkewitz, responding to the EFF’s lopsided approach to Article 13, he summarizes the current draft of the directive in the following sober terms:

“… it requires large commercial platforms who are in the business of content distribution (defined in the legislation) to license the works that they are distributing, and to take steps to guard against the distribution of works for which it is not licensed. While the use of filters is not explicitly mentioned (unlike an earlier version of the Article), it is anticipated by most parties that most covered platforms would discharge their obligations to prevent distribution of infringing materials through the use of available technologieseither bespoke like ContentID, or off the shelf from a supplier like AudibleMagic. 

It is also important to keep in mind that, while it is timely for all creators (including YouTubers) to become better informed about Article 13 and to weigh in on the merits of the proposals, it will take at least a couple of years for all of the member states to implement the directive.  Thus, YouTube’s efforts to panic its entrepreneurial creators this month should be reason enough to question both its methods and its motives.  Is it really about those creators, or is it about a $160-billion company not wanting to pay license fees to other creators?

On the one hand, this type of scare-mongering is business as usual.  A corporation or industry doesn’t want the responsibility or cost of complying with a proposed law, and so tells consumers or employees (or both) that they will suffer if the policy in question were to be implemented.  But on the other hand, when a media platform like YouTube claims that a new policy will have “unintended consequences” like shutting down various channels, the company is uniquely empowered to spread its self-serving message and to manipulate user experiences in order to prioritize that message over other narratives.  As Rieck puts it …

“Ultimately, the way YouTube channels have been pressed into the service of the platform demonstrates just how urgent the need for measured political regulation of the platform has now become and how easy it is for the platform to exploit the ecosystem of private and semi-professional pseudo-journalism it hosts for its own ends.”

I would go so far as to at least entertain the possibility that YouTube could shut down or severely limit various channels as a false-flag tactic aimed at sowing further resentment against proposals like Article 13.  Perhaps the company would never engage in such an underhanded scheme, but really, what’s to stop them?  After all, they are already willing to engage in bad-faith PR designed to mislead YouTubers about the true nature of the EU directive.  In her open letter to YouTubers, CEO Susan Wojcicki, states:

“Article 13 as written threatens to shut down the ability of millions of people — from creators like you to everyday users — to upload content to platforms like YouTube. And it threatens to block users in the EU from viewing content that is already live on the channels of creators everywhere. This includes YouTube’s incredible video library of educational content, such as language classes, physics tutorials and other how-to’s.”

Really?  Even if we set aside the fact that Article 13 is a proposal to develop protocols that will take time and further negotiations to implement (if they happen at all), this statement implies that a very high percentage of YouTube channels rely substantially on unlicensed copyrighted material.  If that’s the case, why the should that status quo be preserved?  I’ve seen a lot of funny, informative, creative videos produced for YouTube that do not make any use of other creators’ protected works. 

For the YouTube creators who do use some portion of protected works, Wojcicki raises a subtle but important dichotomy when she addresses them as “a diverse community of creators who are building the next generation of media companies.”  Because that sounds to any reasonable person like a business enterprise.  And if these YouTubers are indeed engaged in business, then why shouldn’t they have the same responsibilities as every other type of professional creator to work within boundaries that respect copyrights?

It seems that when it suits the platform’s interests, we are meant to think of YouTubers as either hapless children (remember Lawrence Lessig?), who cannot be expected to know about copyright; or we are meant to think of them as the vanguard generation of new creative professionals, who should not be burdened by copyright.  Notice how, in either case, YouTube seeks to avoid its responsibility—as the only multi-billion-dollar media company in this narrative—by aligning its interests with the interchangeable interests of its users.

I recognize that underlying YouTube’s ability to frighten this class of creators about Article 13 is a litany of mistakes and abuses of existing models like Content ID or the DMCA notice and takedown process.  YouTube creators have had their own works targeted, either through error or willful misuse of these systems; and bad actors have targeted works they do not legally represent. 

While the anecdotes of bad-faith use of these systems are true, they feed a broader narrative which is not true:  that abuse of content-filtering systems is so rampant that the status quo is preferable to any attempt to make these systems work better for all stakeholders.  The status quo may be working for YouTube’s bottom line, but it certainly is not working for rights holders whose works are infringed at uncontrollable volume on the platform.   In fact, I have yet to see any data that even indicates that filtering or DMCA abuse is anywhere near the scope of infringement.  

Meanwhile, assuming Article 13 becomes law in the EU, YouTube creators have at least a couple of years to assess the extent to which their channels truly rely on the protected works of other authors.  Those who do not use other people’s works should be entirely unaffected; and if they are, their complaint may be properly directed at YouTube rather than Article 13.  Creators who use protected works legally—either by license or fair use—should play a particularly active (but informed) role in these developments.  

As professional creators, I suspect YouTube creator interests will increasingly share common cause with other types of creators.  In fact,  YouTube’s July launch of its Copyright Match system to address creator-to-creator disputes certainly suggests that YouTubers care about their own copyrights and should, therefore, take a proactive rather than a reactive look at the goals of Article 13.  After all, with regard to the way Wojcicki’s letter spawned a lot of misinformed outrage, it’s worth noting that just because this class of creators uses YouTube is no reason to let YouTube use them.

Source illustration by studiostoks

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