In the wake of the recent Youtube demonetisation scandal – a surprise to some, not to others – abrupt in its revelation and unexpected in its extent, a lot of my fellow sceptics, atheists and members of that broader community have reacted on two poles. One group, much like me, treats this as another example of creeping online censorship of social media. Another group seems to brush this off and to claim is isn’t censorship, disturbingly echoing many SJW arguments as they do so.
While some people in the first group may be overreacting, people in the second group are just flat out wrong. Some of this is down to not understanding the principle of free expression or the meaning of censorship. Some of it seems to be ideological, where free market, economic libertarianism seems to come into conflict with the principles of individual rights and freedoms and they seem unable to negotiate the clash between the two.
In large part I tend to blame the dominance of the American First Amendment over these kinds of discussions. It turns these arguments into legalistic and governmental ones, when the right to free expression is a universal human right, enshrined in but not deriving from documents like the US constitution, the United Nations declaration on human rights and many, many others.
The discussion and argument is far, far bigger than American law.
What is Censorship?
The Oxford English Dictionary is about as definitive a guide to the meaning of the English language as you can get, and defines censorship thus:
The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.
In other words, anything that reduces or eliminates expression, on any basis – legitimate or otherwise – is censorship. Anything. The argument is usually not whether something is censorship, but whether said censorship is justified.
The ACLU has a noteworthy, modern understanding of censorship and describes it thus:
Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional. In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period.
Freedom of expression is, meanwhile, perhaps best expressed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
To reiterate. Your right to free expression is that to hold and impart opinions without interference, through any media, regardless of frontiers. Clearly a great deal interferes with that, some justified, some not, but that’s the ideal. Anything that does interfere with that is censorship. That censorship can come from government but also from private groups, companies, individuals and even from oneself, either through free personal choice or under pressure and duress (it can be hard to disentangle the two).
When the government bans and prosecutes child pornography it is justified on the grounds of protection of children. When the government bans pornography created by and for consenting adults it is, arguably, not justified.
When a pressure group, such as those operated by former campaigner Mary Whitehouse tries to shut down ‘lewdness’ and ‘immoral content’ on television they’re largely unjustified, but are engaged in attempted censorship. When a pressure group has indisputable evidence that certain content can harm the development of children they may justifiably argue for censorship or constriction. Pressure groups on campus no-platforming speakers are engaged in censorship. Again, anything that suppresses or prevents speech is censorship. The threats of violence from Islamic extremists against cartoonists, causing them to self-censor – again, censorship.
All of this is censorship.
The only good justifications for censorship are under the harm principle:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – JS Mill, On Liberty.
Can we, then, say that what is going on at Youtube is censorship?
That it is a private company makes no difference here. Censorship does not require government involvement to be censorship. Youtube does censor certain content, but this has been deemed reasonable by most of the community (nudity etc is disallowed). I would disagree there too, but that’s a different argument. Youtube has not outright banned any additional content, so it’s not outright censorship, it has ‘merely’ removed monetisation on the basis of some rather opaque and vague criteria.
This loss of monetisation, which is tied to ‘controversial topics’, politics, news and other forms of content may not be outright censorship but it is ‘suppression’, refer back to the definition. Content that can’t make creators money will become less common, the livelihoods of people who produce Youtube content full time will be threatened. Certain forms of commentary and news coverage will be affected as will support organisations, charities, fiction of certain types, tutorials and more. ‘Controversial topics’ is particularly contentious, I’ve had perfectly lucid, explanatory videos on ‘Gamergate’ demonetised.
That people the sceptic/atheist/anti-SJW community have beef with have also been censored doesn’t make the problem less of an issue, it just means it’s affecting more people. That they’ve had their demonetisation reversed (Laci Green) while others have not does lend some weight to this being a political bias, or at least fear on Youtube’s part of bad publicity from some quarters and not others.
Whatever the specifics, yes it’s censorship as it is suppressing certain forms of expression.
Is it Justified?
It’s censorship, but since anything that suppresses or bans speech is censorship the question is whether it’s justified or not. So where’s the harm being done?
Ostensibly this censorship is being made at the behest of the advertisers, but why?
Youtube only benefits from more people using and watching their platform. It costs them very little to host any particular person’s content and the more there is and the more variety the more people are likely to watch. The more creators and the more content they put out and promote, the more to watch. It’s in Youtube’s interest to have the least amount of restriction possible.
Users do not have their experience improved by the censorship, they are harmed by it (less content, less entertainment). Some may say they’re harmed by seeing expression they don’t like, but the solution is simply not to watch it.
Creators are harmed directly by the censorship. Some might say they want it – there was a push against ‘roasting’ and other response videos recently, but again the solution is simply not to watch it.
Advertisers are supposedly the ones asking for this as it is ‘advertiser friendliness’ that is the excuse given. How could an advertiser be harmed here? The kinds of content being targeted are clearly popular and draw a lot of eyes, which is what the advertiser is paying for. This is not sponsorship, there is no direct link between the product and the content and while seeing adverts for Barbie showing next to ‘Uncle Anaconda’s Underage Trouser Power Hour’ might be amusing, nobody except the basest moron would associate the one with the other unless there was sponsorship. Advertisers already advertise around news programmes, edgy comedy shows and more on television. What’s the difference here, if there is any? None.
Nobody appears to gain from this and everybody is harmed – even the advertisers who end up with less exposure.
There’s no justification for it that holds up under scrutiny.
Are we then, those who protest, justified in seeking to exercise control over a privately owned media platform?
Youtube is not like an art gallery. It has – essentially – unlimited space to host content. A gallery could justify turning you away based on limited space or lack of talent or not fitting their remit. The cost/benefit is in favour of them. On Youtube however it costs them virtually nothing (per individual case) to host content and they gain. There’s not much of a defence there on economic or practical grounds.
Moral grounds? This becomes more tricky. If they don’t want certain kinds of content then to an extent that’s their prerogative. However, we live in interesting times. The public square is privately owned and the hard won freedoms we have when it comes to things like free expression, that protect us from the government, do not protect us – at least not in law – from private companies. This becomes an issue in the case of social media giants like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook because they now own the public square and their censorship has a massively deleterious effect.
There’s precedent for the state (acting as the will of the people) stepping in to protect people’s rights form private entities. Some of these are obvious – regulation on dumping waste, not being allowed to make false claims in advertising and so on, others are less obvious or more contentious. Is it right that we step in to protect a homosexual couple’s access to services for their weddings, or should we allow private businesses to be conducted according to their own conscience? What if they want to turn away blacks, or women? Is that OK?
This appears to be the sticking point for many, especially the economic libertarians, anarcho capitalists and so on. The abuse of power that comes in a wholly free market appears to be inevitable and this kind of censorship is an example of that – albeit a mild one. This is especially a problem when the company in question – such as Youtube – has such a de-facto monopoly.
This is where our argument and discussion should be occurring. Where individual and business rights collide, how monopoly status and the cheapness of digital storage interfaces with that.
Some Practical Solutions
1. First I suggest that anyone who runs into advertising on Youtube make a note of who is advertising and then contact them later. Express – politely – the issue with demonetisation and that blame is being placed on the advertisers. Tell them you prefer Youtube as a free speech platform and you do not want to support a company that suppresses free speech. If enough people do this to enough companies (explaining that advertising and content is divorced) then there may be some traction and a shift.
2. Give advertisers the freedom to advertise on ‘edgy’ content if they wish. Flag content as ‘limited monetisation’ if you wish, but let the advertisers choose if they want their adverts to run there or not, rather than simply demonetising. Many advertisers probably don’t care. Many would probably like to advertise next to very popular, controversial and topical content as it may fit their product profile better. Advertisers that don’t want to do so wouldn’t have to, advertisers that did would benefit, creators and viewers would continue to benefit from monetisation.
3. Allow Youtube Red to apply to the content you’re limiting. This would allow ‘edgy’ content to get money as if advertising were present, coming from the Red subscription. It would also encourage creators to encourage their followers to support Youtube Red, with a knock-on benefit for Youtube itself.
It is censorship. It’s not justifiable under the harm principle. Holding Youtube (and similar companies) to uphold free expression is a controversial and arguable point – an interesting discussion to have – but there were other ways to deal with this problem, and better ways than springing it on people.
People need to understand that censorship is more than governmental. That free speech is not limited to the US constitution. That the media landscape has changed and that rights and legislation need to catch up.