David R. Henderson  

Can YouTube Censor?

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No, it can't.

On Monday, the conservative educational nonprofit Prager University filed a lawsuit against YouTube and its parent company, Google, for "intentional" censorship of conservative speakers. YouTube made more than fifteen percent of the organization's videos impossible to access in its "restrictive mode" -- meant to protect younger and more sensitive viewers -- and only slowly provided contradictory answers for why they were restricted.

"Watch any one of our videos and you'll immediately realize that Google/YouTube censorship is entirely ideologically driven," PragerU founder Dennis Prager declared in a statement on the lawsuit. He accused Google and YouTube of "engaging in an arbitrary and capricious use of their 'restricted mode' and 'demonetization' to restrict non-left political thought."


This is from Tyler O'Neil, "PragerU Sues YouTube, Google for 'Intentional' Censorship of Conservative Speakers," PJ Media, October 24.

What YouTube did sucks. They may well be hypocrites. They pretty clearly are discriminating against certain viewpoints. But none of this constitutes censorship.

Google owns YouTube and gets to choose what gets placed on YouTube. That's no different in principle from Liberty Fund owning this blog and getting to choose who gets to post. Clearly Liberty Fund doesn't have the market power that YouTube has. But that doesn't change the principle.

Disclosure: I've been interviewed by, and like, Dennis Prager. PragerU has also produced a video by me on the minimum wage.


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CATEGORIES: moral reasoning




COMMENTS (17 to date)
Ben writes:

I really don't see how YouTube can get sued for this. An algorithm blocks videos on a filter that's designed for kids etc and YouTube is apparently breaking the law, what?

I remember when the internet went mad because the same filter was blocking LGBT videos. It's an algorithm, of course it doesn't have built-in ideological preferences.

The First Amendment doesn't give people the right to use the property of others as they wish. I fully support YouTube's right to censor what people post on their website. It is their property.

lupis42 writes:

Youtube can (and probably should) get sued to the degree that they are violating the terms that they got people to upload videos under. If you produce Youtube content and upload it under one set of terms, and Youtube profits off that, then decides to effectively change the terms, you may have a case against Youtube. It's not censorship, but they have changed the deal on a lot of people to whom they potentially owe money, and those people probably have a claim.

David R Henderson writes:

@lupis42,
Youtube can (and probably should) get sued to the degree that they are violating the terms that they got people to upload videos under. If you produce Youtube content and upload it under one set of terms, and Youtube profits off that, then decides to effectively change the terms, you may have a case against Youtube. It's not censorship, but they have changed the deal on a lot of people to whom they potentially owe money, and those people probably have a claim.
You may well be right. If I were Prager U, that would be my approach. But, as you say and I said, it’s not censorship.

Jon Murphy writes:

This could be an interesting case to watch. Reading the article you link to, it looks like Prager is suing on First Amendment grounds, but if they are then the case is a non-starter (the First Amendment, if I understand correctly, only applies to government action. Youtube is not a government agency).

As lupis42 says, PragerU could be suing under contractual issues, but it's not clear to me even that would work.

It'll be interesting to see where/how this goes.

Chris writes:

I guess I'm not clear on what "Censor" means, but everywhere I've looked so far this qualifies as censorship. Here's what wikipedia says (and others are in the same line):

"Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information that may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions."

It seems to me that google qualifies as a "media outlet" or "other group or institution".

Whether a group has a right to censor or not is not relevant to whether it actually is censorship or not. In this case this looks like censorship but at the same time I do agree that they, as a private organization, have a right to censor content on their sites.

I don't see what the basis is for not calling it censorship?

Tucker writes:

YouTube takes advantage of the DMCAs safe harbor provisions, and as such claims to be an OSP, and to not own or be responsible for any users uploaded content.

If they can "choose" what gets put on YouTube, beyond removing infringing and illegal material, I'm not sure they qualify as an OSP, and then are liable to for profiting off of the infringing material.

Regardless, Google's free services have always had a giant caveat - if it works for you great, but there is no meaningful customer support or help, and we will not explain our decisions under any circumstance. You are the product, not the customer.

David R Henderson writes:

@Chris,
I don't see what the basis is for not calling it censorship?
My basis is that Wikipedia is wrong. Censorship has traditionally required government action.

Peter Hurley writes:

@lupis42 and Prof Henderson,

The idea that YouTube's ToS didn't allow them to do what they did is absurd. YouTube's ToS explicitly allows them to make the sort of changes that took place here.

The terms under which you uploaded the videos explicitly gave YouTube the right to change its services, and confers no right to have YouTube's algorithms promote your videos.

Moreover, by bringing a lawsuit, PragerU has sought to bring the compulsory power of the state to bear against YouTube. Accordingly, the only party actually attempting to promote state censorship here is PragerU, who are attempting to have a court stop YouTube from telling others that PragerU's videos are bad.

Richard Wallace writes:

Perhaps it is just as well that Google/YouTube is becoming more open in demonetizing and sandboxing conservative and libertarian content. It is past time for alternative business platforms to provide impartial, unfettered access to all content that is legal. We do not need governmental or corporate caretaker to protect us against what they deem to be false or offensive.

Juan Manuel Pérez Porrúa writes:

Two words: Common Carrier. Maybe Google is abusing its monopoly power.

Phil writes:

@ David & Chris - I agree that it is censorship, but it is not a form of censorship that is legally actionable, as would occur if the government was the censor.

@ Juan - I don't think YouTube could be considered to have Monopoly status, but if they did, antitrust law restricts wielding monopoly power to restrict competition of that industry, not the competition for the exchange of ideas in society.

Mark writes:

@Richard Wallace,

Though I agree that the government should not get involved, I'm not optimistic about a more open-minded competitor emerging to challenge Google (or Facebook, for that matter). Most conservatives and libertarians have resigned themselves to a progressive-dominated entertainment industry and progressive-dominated higher education, instead of jumping ship for alternatives (far more conservatives still want their kids to go to Harvard than to Pepperdine). I think most will resign themselves to Google and Facebook, despite any tendencies to censor.

Isaac Kogure writes:

I believe the concept of censorship is a good thing. It protects our youth or people who are not mature enough for the most part. Things such as graphic or inappropriate content are things that should be blocked for young people. It should also not be the full job of youtube to make sure everything is censored.

Youtube blocking the ideals of a certain individual for expressing ideas that may be a little controversial is not right. Doesn't this restrict one's right to free speech? Therefore, I believe that Prager University is right to sue Youtube. Knowing about different ideas allows one to be exposed to different situations around the world and know how to tell the difference between right and wrong.

David R Henderson writes:

@Isaac Kogure,
Youtube blocking the ideals of a certain individual for expressing ideas that may be a little controversial is not right.
I agree.
Doesn't this restrict one's right to free speech?
No. The right to free speech gives no one else the obligation to carry that speech.

Vangel Vesovski writes:

First, it clearly is censorship.

Second, Youtube is free to censor ideas that it does not like.

Third, once Youtube decides that it will censor people who are not on the Left, it can no longer claim to the public that it is impartial.

Fourth, Youtube needs to be called out on its arbitrary decisions because it falsely claims that the reason for banning some institutions is because of the content yet is happy to permit institutions on the Left to keep violating the supposed rules. It also needs to be consistent and honest. If it isn't there is a case to be made that the same regulations that impact the old media companies need to be applied to Google.

Vangel Vesovski writes:

@Ben: An algorithm blocks videos on a filter that's designed for kids etc and YouTube is apparently breaking the law, what?

And there is the problem. It is not an algorithm but human beings that make decisions about the bans. Youtube is free to censor but not to falsely claim that is not doing so arbitrarily.

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