Does YouTube follow its own principles?

30 July 2019


If you want to learn more about YouTube’s “philosophy,” insofar as it has one, one place to start is the company’s about page.


It says: “Our mission is to give everyone a voice and show them the world.”


Below that is a nice video and “four essential freedoms that define who we are”.


But are YouTube’s practices in line with its principles?


Freedom of expression

YouTube says: “We believe people should be able to speak freely, share opinions, foster open dialogue, and that creative freedom leads to new voices, formats and possibilities.”


Of course in practice, YouTube blocks plenty of content. YouTube uses a complex system of bots and human moderators to hide, demonetize, and “bury” videos about undesirable topics. This includes some political, religious, and socially controversial topics.


Freedom of information

YouTube says: “We believe everyone should have easy, open access to information and that video is a powerful force for education, building understanding, and documenting world events, big and small.”


In practice, YouTube generates and saves huge amounts of data about users, creators, and videos. Users’ behavior is minutely tracked and analyzed and used to create lists of suggested videos tailored to each individual. The process by which these lists are created is secret. Creators and videos are evaluated and categorized according to secret rules. Advertisers can choose to prevent their ads from being displayed on videos in certain categories, but creators aren’t told when this happens to their videos. Even when they ask, YouTube doesn’t tell creators which categories their videos have been assigned to.


Freedom of opportunity

YouTube says: “We believe everyone should have a chance to be discovered, build a business and succeed on their own terms, and that people—not gatekeepers—decide what’s popular.”


In practice, not everyone has the same chance. And YouTube’s algorithms and special rules for celebrities and mainstream news outlets means YouTube has become the gatekeeper.


Freedom to belong

YouTube says: “We believe everyone should be able to find communities of support, break down barriers, transcend borders and come together around shared interests and passions.”


In practice, YouTube keeps communities apart to keep them under control. The Creators Forums, which existed in many languages, were closed in February 2018. The private messaging system inside YouTube was closed in June 2018 and all the messages in it were deleted. As a result, it’s become much harder for YouTubers to communicate with each other.