Youtube and Regulating the Infinite Stream of Content

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Youtube, a video hosting platform founded 15 years ago, has now become an irreplaceable component in the internet media ecosystem. Storing a whopping 76 petabyte (that’s 15 zeros of bytes) every year, it is obviously infeasible to police this much content with human alone. This means heavy usage of algorithms and AI, and almost inevitably letting some issues fall through the crack. In this blog post I’ll focus on two aspects that are regulated on the YouTube platform: copyrighted content and conspiracy theories.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: copyrighted contents. If you paid attention to youtube news, you probably encountered some drama about creators’ original videos under copyright claim, losing all monetization to the claiming party. Many of these cases are usually results of the “Content ID” system. Content ID is a digital fingerprinting system Google has developed in order to keep track of all copyrighted content and identify their unauthorized use any time a new video is uploaded. For each audio or video content that is copyrighted, an ID file is created and stored in a database. Whenever a new video is uploaded, the content is checked against this database. If copyrighted material is found, the owner of the copyright obtain the power to: block the video completely, look at the viewership statistics, and add advertisements to the video and automatically getting all generated revenue.

On paper, this sounds like a great system — give the original creator the power right? Well, needless to say there were and still are a lot of problems in practice. The biggest issue is actually not with the system itself, but the subsequent protocols. Say, you uploaded a video and it got copyright claimed. You disagree with the decision and filled out the form to dispute it. Where does that dispute form go to you ask? Directly to the supposed copyright holder. That’s right, if you feel like your content was mistakenly marked and wanted to appeal that mistake, you are under the mercy of the same party that benefits from disregarding your appeal. Unless you pursue legal action (against what are usually massive corporations that holds the copyrights), the copyright holder has the final say. To add salt to the wound, if they decide to deny your claim, you will get a “copyright strike” added to your channel. 3 strikes and your channel will be removed from Youtube, permanently. Therefore, small creators are generally powerless against the “system”.

This is not hypothetical by the way. This has happened, over and over, on the platform. In 2018, Sebastian Tomczak used a white noise generator to create a 10 hour video of pure white noise. Absurdly, the video got multiple copyright claims.

My ten hour white noise video now has five copyright claims! 🙂

Sebastian Tomczak a.k.a “littlescale”, Twitter

On a less humorous and more high profile note, famous German DJ “TheFatRat” had a 47 million view original music video “stolen” by a Content ID scammer. The scammer had no videos uploaded, no working contact info, and generally no internet presence at all. Yet, somehow, under the Content ID system, the scammer managed to claim ownership of the 47 million view video and started collecting revenue. Adding insult to injury, it seems that the scammer waited until the last possible moment before denying the appeal from “TheFatRat”, thus ensuring that the claimed video generated as much revenue as possible for himself. “TheFatRat” tried to contact Youtube officials, but all they can say is to sort it out with the scammer himself, completely ignoring that the email and all other contact infos provided are fake. Eventually, things were only fixed when “TheFatRat” went public with this outrages issue, and lawyers got involved.

These are not completely isolated incidents either. For another example, videos including classical musics that has long since been available in the public domain following the artists’ death were being copyright claimed. But thats enough about copyrights, lets move on to another topic.

Regarding conspiracy theories, one can say Youtube has the opposite problem as the case in copyrighted content. Whereas youtube fervently police copyrighted content, conspiracy theories and generally polarizing contents are not very well policed at all. If you are a heavy user of YouTube, you might have encountered this interesting “feature” before: after following the recommended video on the side bar for a few times, you eventually are led to the “dark side of youtube”, where the video is possibly some dude trying to convince you that the world is flat or run by lizards. Those are just two possible examples, but similar fringe opinion content exist for all topics on youtube. This is not just an anecdotal phenomenon either: a study by the Wall Street Journal has confirmed that this is in fact happening. (Nicas, Jack (February 7, 2018). “How YouTube Drives People to the Internet’s Darkest Corners”Wall Street JournalISSN 0099-9660.)

You might find this harmless or even humorous, but this phenomenon leads to very dangerous results. During and after the investigation of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, many conspiracy videos risen to the top of people’s recommended videos and generally contaminated the platform with misinformation. In 2019, BBC investigated and found that youtube’s algorithm promoted health related misinformation as well as alt-right content. Similarly, in July 2019, a study using the Tor Browser (a browser with no traceable history as to not influence the result) was conducted and found that most search results of the topic “climate change” are actually contrary to the scientific consensus on climate change.

If you’ve been on youtube and clicked on one of those videos, you might find a small link to Wikipedia below the video, linking to the relevant topic. That is the extent of Youtube’s regulation. The argument is that to do anything more would staunch free speech. Generally, unless the content has directly violated some part of the user agreement or content policy, youtube will turn a blind eye. However, on a more recent matter, following numerous “5G tower conspiracy videos” relating to COVID-19, Youtube has taken action and initiated a massive take down of all related videos.

It goes without saying that Youtube has one of the toughest jobs in the world: regulating an infinite stream of content on the most popular video platform. In the end, how well Youtube does this job and how much better they can be expected to improve is always up to you to decide.

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