YouTube Wants to Fight Hate Speech. So it Censored My Educational Video About the Holocaust | Opinion

I have been involved in the tech world for over 35 years. I became an Apple developer back in 1984. My website, Historycentral.com, has been live since 1995. Over the last several decades, I have worked with Apple, Google (including YouTube), Facebook and Amazon, and continue to do so. There were years I earned significant income from one, another, or a combination of these tech mammoths; and in other years that revenue plummeted (usually due to an algorithmic change, but some times due to some mistake I made).

On several occasions, I have reached out to Google to correct an error they made. Once I was able to actually communicate with a person Google was responsive, even changing policy as a result of flaws I brought to their attention.

I have never gone public with my concerns, until now. The writing of this article was triggered by a notification from YouTube this week, that my eight-minute video, The Holocaust - A Short History, was flagged as "Age Restricted." According to YouTube, "Age-Restricted videos are not visible to users who are logged out, or under 18 years of age, or have 'Restricted Mode' enabled."

This isn't about money. The video is not monetized, nothing is earned from it. My website, HistoryCentral.Com is explicitly designed to help middle and high school students learn about history. I have taught students in both age groups, including teaching 8th graders about the Holocaust. The video in question is indeed a bit graphic. It contains a clip from captured German archival films of the actual mass killings of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen death squads. Despite the horror, this historic footage is not something high school students should be barred from viewing. I appealed the verdict using the 100 character form YouTube provides.

Within three hours, YouTube sent a response that their initial decision held.

This episode raises a larger question about the dilemmas created by having two monopolies, i.e., Google and Facebook, control the flow of information throughout the globe (except for China.) They are far from the only problematic monopolies created during the last decades (just take Amazon). But Google and Facebook are unique. They don't control commodities, they control information, and their founders still control their companies—thanks to special voting rights their stocks provide.

The power of Google and Facebook creates three sets of problems and addressing one challenge often exacerbates the others. The first problem has now become the most well-known—i.e., the ability by some users to utilize these platforms to manipulate information, spread fake news, and influence elections. Russian use of digital social networks throughout the 2016 US Presidential election is well-documented, and by all accounts, successful. In that same vein, the algorithms of both YouTube and Facebook, designed to keep users engaged on their platform by showing more of whatever appears to be of interest, has contributed to the radicalization of political views worldwide. (No better examination of this phenomenon exists than in the excellent New York Times feature by Kevin Roose, The Making of a YouTube Radical.)

The second problem is in trying to fix these and other issues, both Google and Facebook have taken on the role of "Censors-in-Chief." They have taken it upon themselves to regulate societal norms—e.g., that high schoolers should not be subjected to graphic images, including those of the Holocaust. They also act as gatekeepers, to ensure that—as YouTube describes it —members of "Protected Classes" are not defamed or attacked by any of their videos. And alongside societal judgment calls, YouTube works hard to remove truly dangerous videos, like those produced by terrorists calling for attacks against potential targets.

During one-quarter of 2018 alone, YouTube removed 58 million videos. But how does a private, for-profit company make such decisions? Beyond relying on AI, which has its own sets of issues, Google has not retained a team of Harvard trained social scientists to review the videos they host. These decisions are often made by subcontracted, overworked, underpaid employees in who are given a set of guidelines and must do their best to reach quick determinations. Who sets the overarching guidelines? Did YouTube recruit a blue ribbon commission of the best and brightest philosophers and educators for this important tasks? No, these guidelines have been set internally.

The third problem is that Google, whose stated goal is to organize all the world's information, has while doing so, accrued much of the monetization to itself. According to a study released this week by the News Media Alliance, Google made $4.7 billion from news sites promoted in search results — an activity which cost them nearly nothing; while the entire news industry struggles to earn $5.1 billion from the digital world—which is the sum required to pay for all those who create content.

All content producers are forced to enter a Faustian bargain with Google. A few years ago, Google began placing selected information from search results on its search page, claiming that is what users want, i.e., fewer clicks with essential information appearing directly on top of the Google page. As a result, users not need click through to any website on which Google shares revenue with the site's content producer (or God forbid, where ads are presented by a different ad network—which these days, rarely happens). The content owner never complains, because appearing first in Google search results, dramatically increases traffic to any article. Overall, the number of people who click on links found via search results has decreased dramatically, since many people suffice with Google's excerpt. Therefore, Google never has to share the revenue.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solutions to offer. Google and Facebook were allowed to grow to their current size unchecked, because of unique legal and political circumstances. Since Robert Bork published his book, The AntiTrust Paradox, the government has primarily followed his reasoning to determine anti-trust decisions—i.e., size of a company is not what counts. Bork contends Anti-trust should only be invoked if competition is stifled in a way that leads to a rise in consumer pricing. Given that both Google and Facebook services are primarily free to consumers, their actions have rarely received the anti-trust scrutiny they deserve.

In 2012, there were serious investigations into both Google and Facebook by FTC staffers, who recommended filing suit against Google. The FTC commissioners, many of whom were picked by President Obama, demurred. To the Democrats, and many others in 2012, the new information age presented a panacea of opportunities to change the world for the better. Unfortunately, they were blind to the potential problems that could result.

Politicians, pundits and academicians have put forth a myriad of recommendations to address these dangers, including breaking up the companies, adding government regulation, or eliminating Section 230, which shields internet companies from suits relating to their content. Each proposal has its own pluses and minuses. What remains clear, is that the current situation is intolerable.

I vividly remember my fights as an undergraduate student of Economics at Columbia University, with a Marxist economic professor who thought the TV networks should become public carriers—because he believed advertising on TV was unhealthy. I argued then that it was better for the means of communications and news to be in many private hands than to be in the hands of the government—which might be benign, but could also become tyrannical.

Today, 45 years later, we are faced with the same fundamental question. How much of what we read and see on the internet do we want to be dictated by two commercial companies, controlled by a small number of people, however well-meaning? And on the other hand, how much do we trust the government to make the right decisions when it comes to regulating the internet? These twin questions will define the future of the internet—and so much more besides.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

YouTube Wants to Fight Hate Speech. So it Censored My Educational Video About the Holocaust | Opinion | Opinion