April 13, 2024

Watching Google's Gatekeepers

Google’s legal team has extraordinary power to decide which videos can be seen by audiences around the world, according to Jeffrey Rosen’s piece, Google’s Gatekeepers in yesterday’s New York Times magazine. Google, of course, owns YouTube, which gives it the technical ability to block particular videos — though of course so many videos are submitted that it’s impractical to review them all in advance.

Some takedown requests are easy — content that is offensive and illegal (almost) everywhere will come own immediately once a complaint is received and processed. But Rosen focuses on more difficult cases, where a government asks YouTube to take down a video that expresses dissent or is otherwise inconvenient for that government. Sometimes these videos violate local laws, but more often their legal status is murky and in any case the laws in question may be contrary to widely accepted free speech principles.

Rosen worries that too much power to decide what can be seen is being concentrated in the hands of one company. He acknowledges that Google has behaved reasonably so far, but he worries about what might happen in the future.

I understand his point, but it’s hard to see an alternative that would be better in practice. If Google, as the owner of YouTube, is not going to have this power, then the power will have to be given to somebody else. Any nominations? I don’t have any.

What we’re left with, then, is Google making the decisions. But this doesn’t mean all of us are out in the cold, without influence. As consumers of Google’s services, we have a certain amount of leverage. And this is not just hypothetical — Google’s “don’t be evil” reputation contributes greatly to the value of its brand. The moment people think Google is misbehaving is the moment they’ll consider taking their business elsewhere.

As concerned members of the public — concerned customers, from Google’s viewpoint — there are things we can do to help keep Google honest. First, we can insist on transparency, that Google reveal what it is blocking and why. Rosen describes some transparency mechanisms that are in place, such as Google’s use of the Chilling Effects website.

Second, when we use Google’s services, we can try to minimize our switching costs, so that moving to an alternative service is a realistic possibility. The less we’re locked in to Google’s service, the less we’ll feel forced to keep using those services even if the company’s behavior changes. And of course we should think carefully about switching costs in all our technology decisions, even when larger policy issues aren’t at stake.

Finally, we can make sure that Google knows we care about free speech, and about its corporate behavior generally. This means criticizing them when they slip up, and praising them when they do well. Most of all, it means debating their decisions — which Rosen’s article helpfully invites us to do.


  1. Once again it looks like the spammer have taken over a perfectly good blog post and turned to towards their own personal agenda. Today is a sad day indeed:-(


  2. The post is great..

  3. Alternatively, YouTube can just take a stand against censorship and if some countries block it, the hell with those countries — they can do without!

  4. > I understand his point, but it’s hard to see an alternative that would be
    > better in practice. If Google, as the owner of YouTube, is not going to
    > have this power, then the power will have to be given to somebody
    > else. Any nominations? I don’t have any.

    I do. It’s not a bad idea to have Google be the ultimate gatekeeper, but there should be a well understood challenge-response system that has been published and agreed upon. The one admirable idea in the DMCA (that unfortunately in practice is not used properly) is the challenge system.

    A user (Bob) posts content to a content portal (we’ll stick with YouTube for now). Some entity – government or otherwise – (Alice) believes this content is infringing or objectionable, and requests that the content is removed. Given the number of possible Bobs, it is unreasonable to put the burden of proof (at this point) in the process on Alice… YouTube should take down the content and inform Bob of why it was taken down.

    Bob can choose to let it go, or fight on. If he chooses to fight, he declares the content is legitimate, and YouTube reposts the content, and informs Alice that the content has been re-posted as the original user has claimed legitimacy (at this point, we’ve probably moved past a very large percentage of the debatable content; most of the obvious chaff has been eliminated by these steps).

    Alice now has a burden of proof. She must show specific cause why Bob’s content is illegitimate for the portal in question, and establish the applicable jurisdiction. As an international entity, YouTube has an obligation to comply with international law, but it only has an obligation to comply with local or national law to the extent that the content is accessible within that region. If YouTube has an established rating system, for example, that allows it to tag video as “illegal in Germany” and prevent German-based IP addresses from accessing that video, they have no obligation to remove it from the overall site (in fact, they have an obligation to the YouTube community to keep that content up and accessible to everywhere other than the origin of the complaint). YouTube is not responsible for preventing anyone in Germany from viewing the video via alternate methods, any more than Playboy is responsible for running a customs site in Saudi Arabia to ensure that their magazines don’t cross the border… they have to take reasonable precautions to prevent German viewers from accessing the content directly through their portal, but outside that responsibility it is Germany’s problem.

    If YouTube is *not* interested in tagging or otherwise implementing basic safeguards, they are obligated to remove the content from the entire site (provided Alice submits reasonable evidence that the content is illegitimate). Optimally, they shouldn’t actually *remove* the content, as the link should stay live but redirect to a page indicating why the content was removed together with contact information for the agency that filed the complaint.

    What is actually needed is an international framework for establishing just cause. No individual nation (or person, or corporation) should be dealt with on an individual basis, as the battle of YouTube vs. Bob vs. Alice will come out quite differently on a case-by-case basis if there is no common framework. If Turkey wants to ban YouTube videos, they should agree to a challenge system that is acceptable to the U.S., Russia, Japan, etc. Mostly to the point, YouTube needs such a framework so that it can stand against unreasonable methods of pressure… if there is an existing IP-On-Internet international treaty, and Alice wants some content off YouTube, YouTube shouldn’t be put in the position of, “take this down or we’ll block the site entirely”.

    If Alice can’t meet the international standard agreed upon, but she goes ahead and blocks YouTube anyway, YouTube should be able to challenge Alice through some additional framework also included in the treaty. If some nation wants to censor YouTube but can’t meet the terms that they’ve agreed upon, the greater community of nations needs to be involved in the arbitration process.

    This is a tall order, but it’s certainly the next reasonable step in this day and age.

  5. “I can’t protect myself from being spyed by google as long as their is no law that prohibits google analytics.”

    You can. It’s called Adblock. Tell it to block their “urchin.js” script. You’ll also find a lot of web pages loading faster once you block it, and even more so when you block some more of the unbelievable amounts of cruft that tend to get loaded at many sites.

    “we are not Google’s customers. We are Google’s product, the “eyeballs””

    Both, actually. We’re the subset of Google’s customers that “pay” in “eyeballs” that Google in turn sells to advertisers. Without us, Google is in trouble.

  6. “If Google, as the owner of YouTube, is not going to have this power, then the power will have to be given to somebody else. Any nominations?”

    The power should belong to distributed hosting. Web pages and images are hosted on millions of different computers run by millions of different people. Why should video be any different?

    Having all internet videos stored on one site is as silly as having one company host every web page in the world. Youtube and other internet video sites solved these problems which people who try to host their own video encounter:
    1. Video is bandwidth intensive and large so not everyone can host it
    2. Video transcoding takes time and appropriate knowledge/software
    3. Standards and support for video vary widely among computers/browsers

    #1 is gradually being solved by bandwidth prices continually dropping–my inexpensive web host recently switched me to an “unlimited bandwidth” plan for no additional cost

    #2 can be solved by software. Some cameras already come with software that converts video to flash format.

    #3 is mostly a done deal. Flash is the most compatible, Quicktime and windows (w/common codecs) are slightly less widespread.

    The trend is toward decentralization.

    There are features that could be added to promote centralization:
    – Pay content creators for ad revenue (like Revver)
    – Promote community/social aspects of the site that encourage people to visit the site directly (like flickr)


  7. “alternative to too much power in a few’s hands ”

    This doesn’t quite make a logical fallacy, but it is an increasingly common cognitive fallacy and I nominate the name “Statist Stupidity” for it. Cure the concentration of “power in a few’s hands” by concentrating it even more into government’s hands.

  8. Simon Moore says

    Hi Freedom-to-thinker.com Team!

    My name is Simon Moore. Could someone from your team send me an email? I have a small proposal for you to make. I couldn’t find any contact information on your site, that’s the reason I’m asking you to contact me. 🙂


  9. How can you say there is no alternative? Most experts now believe that there was an alternative to too much power in a few’s hands in the finance fiasco we are experiencing. The alternative is called “control”.

    Of course, you can overdo control. But you can also underdo control. The latter is what we are experiencing with Microsoft and Google.

  10. Yeah, its a point I think about a lot these days, particularly with the growth of the online market.

    The big media owners have a responsibility that is going to grow until it is tantamount as important as some of the censorship powers that we know our beloved governments use in our best interests.

    I am currently writing a blog piece myself along a similar vein relating to the responsibility some of this social power that can now be harnessed by large corporations, unlike what we’ve seen before.

    Google has already rocked the boat a few times, with the release of Google Chrome came out cry of privacy issues, our office was split in two camps, those that just took Google’s word and the others that held their information rights with great secrecy.

    I think we all need to keep our perspectives open on these matters and try and make informed judgements ourselves were possible. Try not to buy into one camp too much and read opposing ideas to make sure you don’t get too narrow minded.

    That said, you need to let go a little to ensure we all reap the benefits of this new borderless social environment.

  11. As concerned members of the public — concerned customers, from Google’s viewpoint — there are things we can do to help keep Google honest.

    Point of order: we are not Google’s customers. We are Google’s product, the “eyeballs” Google is selling to its real customers: advertisers.

    Other than that, spot on.

    • We are the customers of google’s customer, if we don’t pay then google (ultimately) doesn’t get paid. It’s as simple as that.

      The search engine space is competitive, as is the media distribution space, you tube is one amongst many. True, you tube is the biggest (for now) but fortunes change fast.

  12. Jeff Pettorino says

    http://tinyurl.com/yudbmh <= link to RadarOnline.com
    Scroogled is the short story about The Day Google Turned Evil, a terrific sci-fi bit written by none other than Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing.net

    It is breath taking to consider the level of information control an organization as popular and instrumental as Google can attain. Insightful post, thank you!

  13. I understand his point, but it’s hard to see an alternative that would be better in practice. If Google, as the owner of YouTube, is not going to have this power, then the power will have to be given to somebody else. Any nominations?

    Yeah, no one. Having a single entity deciding what gets shown and what
    doesn’t is obviously a big problem in terms of human freedom. Even if
    the entity is entirely aligned with you it is easy for someone
    powerful to put the screws to them. From a technical perspective this
    is (almost trivially) solvable by using distributed content stores.