The internet has come a long way from the wild-west that it once was. While it seemed like a lawless land, it is so ubiquitous now that we cannot imagine a world without internet etiquette and service agreements.
Twitch is a unique case amongst social media platforms in that it has multiple tiers of content moderation. Like many platforms, Twitch has a Terms of Service agreement (ToS) and community guidelines applied site-wide to each user. Twitch is different from Patreon, with paywalled content, and YouTube, where all content is free to consume. Instead, Twitch blocks and limits access to certain features based on subscription status in addition to specific bans by the creator. I discuss these several modes of regulation in detail.
An ignored aspect of regulation is that Twitch, like many platforms, requires users to provide information to access the site. By that, I, of course, mean a username, password, and email address. We’ve become so accustomed to giving that information that many of us even have burner emails to access a site without having to provide our “real” email address. Unlike pay-walled streaming platforms, like Netflix, Disney+, or Hulu, new users on Twitch need not create an account to watch a live stream. Anyone can watch any stream at any time. Rather features, such as chat messages, subscriptions, and posting, are blocked until a user creates an account. This is the first tier of regulation: if one does not have an email account or likely does not want to give theirs away, Twitch immediately blocks full usage of their site.
ToS has reached a universal status among netizens as “something I agree to but don’t read,” which is interesting considering it is a fully enforceable legal document. ToS is a set of guidelines and expectations between service providers and users and is everywhere when joining a new social media platform. It is also a document mainly created to protect platforms from potential lawsuits. Twitch, like many other platforms, requires that users sign the ToS before being able to make an account. The ToS on Twitch is often boilerplate legal jargon but does contain some important details. Among the many provisions, it:
- Requires users to be above 13 years old to create an account.
- Allows Twitch to modify the ToS at any time.
- Allows Twitch unfettered rights to any content created on the platform and the likeness of the creators unless they signed a separate contract.
- Advertisements and promotions must comply with FCC regulations.
- Blocks donations from directly going to elections.
- Blocks violation of copyright.
Some are not surprising. Of course, Twitch would require its users not to break laws on the platform, such as copyright infringement and FCC regulations. Although under Section 230, Twitch is not legally liable for content created by its users, it still must be able to enforce the Digital Millennium Copyright act (DMCA) on its platform. Of course, not all DMCA violations are pursued, although that is at the discretion of the copyright holders rather than Twitch itself.
Twitch is unique in that not only does it have live video, but it also saves the videos on its platforms in Videos-On-Demand or VODs. As Twitch explains, “the rights that you need to secure for copyrighted material in your live broadcast may be different than the rights needed for the same material in your recorded content”. So a streamer who has permission to broadcast a video or song live may need to take down the VOD in post. In general, Twitch handles copyright infringement after the stream has ended. It mutes stream videos (videos on demand or VODs) when copyrighted music is played, as on platforms like YouTube. If a streamer infringes on copyright repeatedly, Twitch bans their channel for a short period.
Not all copyright infringements are pursued. In 2021, many creators were watching entire early MasterChef seasons. Of course, these were not just fully uploaded episodes: The creators were commenting throughout the episode, making jokes, and engaging with their community. Twitch took none of these channels down, regardless of how large the streamer was. If we look at another situation with Pokimane, a popular streamer, Twitch banned her for a week after watching Avatar: The Last Airbender on stream. So why are some creators banned but not others? Unless the copyright holder files a DMCA report on Twitch, Twitch won’t pull down any infringing videos. We see this often when many content creators watch old tv-shows or listen to old music, like clips or entire episodes. In this case, holders did not pursue MasterChef copyright infringement but did pursue in the case of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Twitch is not the arbiter of what is or is not an infringement: it simply issues notices of take-down requests, sends DMCA notifications, and bans repeat offenders.
Something to note is that some users do not intend to show copyrighted material. Perhaps they’re watching a video that uses copyrighted music in the background, or they’re walking around in public, and the radio plays a copyrighted song. Unlike YouTube, where there is ultimate discretion in posting copyrighted material, Twitch streamers – with the spontaneity of live streaming – have less control. Often users circumvent this by muting the video immediately, watching it on a different screen, or singing a louder sound on top of it.
On top of ToS, Twitch has its community guidelines, a “living document that [is] regularly [updated] based on the evolution of the Twitch community and service.” Essentially, depending on the climate of Twitch at the time, Twitch will update its community guidelines to address the situation. If ToS protects Twitch, the community guidelines defend users. Recently, Twitch banned gambling, except in the form of Poker or sports betting, following repeated calls, major news stories, and community outrage.
Some of the community guidelines on Twitch cover the following:
- Breaking the law
- Suspension evasion
- Threats or violence
- Hateful conduct
- Sharing of private information
Many of these are par for the course, but the most interesting is “suspension evasion”. When Twitch bans a user, they cannot create a new account and try to stream again or even appear on other streams. Further, if a streamer knowingly displays banned users on their Twitch stream, they are punished. You see this often when banned creators make YouTube videos that streamers will often block their faces. Further, Twitch has a fairly strict policy on hateful conduct that is enforceable even when the behavior occurs off-platform. If a user makes an antisemitic video on YouTube or remarks at Twitch-sponsored events like TwitchCon, that user’s channel can be taken down.
Twitch has complete discretion on whether a punishment is administered and what the punishment is. Recently, a female Twitch streamer was only banned for one week after engaging in sexual activities live. However, another Twitch streamer who sent his fan to visit Pokimane and spam “L+ Ratio” was permanently banned for harassment, with the two later reconciling.
Although most content on Twitch is free, Twitch does have a subscription and ad-based revenue stream. Twitch often signs agreements with its creators on the ads per hour and the minimum number of hours a streamer must stream. Although ad-based models are popular among social media platforms, neither the creator nor the user has any choice in how many ads are shown on their videos.
On top of this, however, Twitch also uses a subscription-based platform. Subscriptions are monthly payments that support a specific creator on Twitch. A user can have a subscription to multiple creators but only one per creator. Subscriptions are split into four different tiers: Free Amazon Prime subscriptions (one prime subscription per month), which are equivalent to $5.99USD tier 1 subscription, followed by tier 2 subscriptions ($9.99USD) and tier 3 subscriptions ($24.99USD), with regional variance for the price, or a complete lack of subscriptions in some nations. Of course, subscriptions can also be gifted, with up to 100 subscriptions randomly distributed to users by others.
The regulation appears when considering the benefits provided by the subscription. In general, having a subscription prevents ads from appearing on that specific streamer’s page. On top of that, creators can offer specific perks to subscribers, such as access to subscriber-only emotes, tiered even among subscription levels, access to subscriber-only mode chats and streams, animated emotes, sub badges, and increased channel points. Except for ad-free viewing, alternatively done by VPNs and ad-blockers (an ongoing battle), most of these perks are provided directly by the creator. Although Twitch provides some subscriber-only emotes, most are provided and designed by streamers. On top of that, subscription badges specifically designate chatters as subscribers.
The highest tier of regulation on Twitch is enforced by streamers through private moderators and chat rules. Some streamers will block non-followers from commenting on their chat, while others create rules that users must follow. For instance:
Here, Pokimane has set specific chat rules, and violations can lead to bans. Streamers and moderators can specifically ban certain users in their chat for any reason, for a limited amount of time or permanently. Once a user is banned, they can watch the stream but cannot engage. Streamers can also block specific keywords or emotes (“nukes”) from being used in their chat, leading to “timeouts”. Of course, the size of the views and the specific rules on that stream limits content moderation. There is only so much regulation possible when over 100,000 people watch a live stream with lax rules.
Twitch plays a niche role in the online video space. Unlike YouTube, which provides long-form content, TikTok, providing short-form, and Netflix, which hides content behind a paywall, Twitch is the largest live streaming service. Where other platforms encourage absurdist content or large projects, Twitch focuses on the mundane. It’s perfectly normal to tune into a stream where the creator is just drawing, eating, or talking to their chat. That environment was fostered, in part, by the unique regulation on Twitch’s platform.
“About Account Enforcements and Chat Bans.” Customer support. Twitch.tv. Accessed October 4, 2022. https://help.twitch.tv/s/article/about-account-suspensions-dmca-suspensions-and-chat-bans?language=en_US.
“About Account Enforcements and Chat Bans.” Twitch.tv. Twitch.tv. Accessed October 4, 2022. https://help.twitch.tv/s/article/about-account-suspensions-dmca-suspensions-and-chat-bans?language=en_US#Copyright.
“Community Guidelines.” Twitch Safety Center. Accessed October 4, 2022. https://safety.twitch.tv/s/article/Community-Guidelines?language=en_US.
“Digital Millennium Copyright Act Notification Guidelines.” Twitch.tv, July 9, 2021. https://www.twitch.tv/p/en/legal/dmca-guidelines/.
“Hateful Conduct & Harassment.” Twitch Safety Center. Twitch.tv. Accessed October 4, 2022. https://safety.twitch.tv/s/article/Harassment?language=en_US#:~:text=What%20does%20Twitch%20consider%20hateful,Religion.
“Terms of Service.” Twitch.tv. Twitch.tv, January 1, 2021. https://www.twitch.tv/p/en/legal/terms-of-service/.