YouTube’s Content ID Discourages Fair Use and Controls What We See Online

Katharine Trendacosta of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Ultimately, it is hard to see any benefit to small, independent creators or viewers in mandating filters. Content ID is so unforgiving, so punishing, so byzantine that it results in a system where those who make videos—“YouTubers”—are so dependent on YouTube for audience access, and promotion by its suggestion algorithm, that they will avoid any action which would put their account in jeopardy. They will allow YouTube to de-monetize their videos, avoid making fair use of copyrighted material they want to use in their work, and endlessly edit and re-edit lawful expression just to meet the demands of YouTube’s copyright filter. The result is that, as a YouTuber with over one million subscribers put it, YouTube is a place where “the only thing that matters is are you smarter than a robot.”

This paper is an absolute must-read.

Content ID is a sledgehammer offered to the wrong side of the legal battle, wielded by an industry that has repeatedly abused intellectual property law for its own benefit. In principle, its only automated flagging would be for blatant copyright infringement, like if someone uploaded an entire movie. Anything other than that and it should go to a human dispute panel, erring on the side of fair use. But that costs money and time, and three weeks’ worth of video gets uploaded to YouTube every minute these days, so that is probably unfeasible.

But, when you think about it, that is not a great excuse. I have long held a suspicion that the scant moderation of big social networks was only a tiny bit about dogmatic ideas about unimpeded freedom of speech, and much more of a calculated business decision. It is completely possible for YouTube and Facebook and other companies to have considered moderation issues more thoroughly in their nascent years. But that would have cost more money and inhibited growth. And, in the days when these companies were losing millions of dollars of venture capital money, the last thing investors wanted to hear were arguments for slow and measured growth while carefully moderating users’ contributions.

These companies are now so large that they are playing catch-up. They are dominant and have no competitors in their sectors, so any rules they make are seen as suppressive. Many of these are backfilled rules that should have been in place as the business was growing to help craft a better community. Instead, entrepreneurs created social media and social networking platforms with rules scarcely more stringent than those on 4chan, with the assumption that they could just figure out any problems as they happened.

There are people who make their living through these platforms — especially YouTube — who are effectively playing a game of Calvinball with a company that has its priorities exactly backwards. Content ID is the longtime dream of rightsholders that have always found reasonable fair use permissions too lenient. But as eager as YouTube is to demonetize and remove videos that trip its overzealous robotic replacement for a copyright attorney, it often fails to moderate truly damaging videos and toxic user comments. These policies create a community where clickbait, lies, and bullying dominate and thoughtful criticism is unable to exist. The web has paywalled truth and freed bullshit.