YouTube CEO’s struggle session was futile

In her first public statements since last week’s censorship controversy YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki attempted to strike a balance between freedom of speech and censorship.

As a quick reminder: one YouTube user claimed to be the subject of homophobic harassment by another user and wanted them censored accordingly. YouTube initially said none of its policies had been violated but on further reflection decided to demonetize (stop serving ads, which are the primary source of revenue for YouTubers) the channel of the accused.

At a live event hosted by Recode – a tech site owned by Vox, which also employs the above complainant, Carlos Maza – Wojcicki insisted on making a public apology to ‘the LGBTQ community’ before answering any questions. This was presumably in response to critics from within that group of the decisions made, of which Maza himself remains one of the most persistent.

Wojcicki moved on to recap what had taken place, which consisted of two distinct but parallel events. The first was the announcement of measures YouTube is taking against ‘hate speech’, which had apparently been in the pipeline for a while. The second was Maza’s allegations and demands, which YouTube addressed separately.

For two such separate issues, however, there seemed to be a fair bit of overlap. Firstly it was revealed that YouTube had pre-briefed the media about the hate speech announcement, raising the possibility that Maza was aware of it when he made his allegations on Twitter. Secondly the decision to demonetize the offending channel coincided precisely with outcry at the original decision that none of its policies had been transgressed, despite that decision having apparently taken 5 days to make.

In the context of hate speech Wojcicki also mentioned that laws addressing it vary widely from country to country. This highlighted one of the central dilemmas faced by internet platforms, that they’re increasingly expected to police speech beyond the boundaries of legality. Their attempts to do so lie at the core of the impossible position that they’re now in.

The interviewer expressed sympathy about the impossibilities of censoring an open platform at such scale and Wojcicki could only say that YouTube is constantly striving to improve and pointed to recent pieces of censorship as proof that it’s doing so. She pushed back at the suggestion that YouTube moderate every upload before publication, saying a lot of voices would be lost. She pointed instead to the tiered model that allows for things like demonetization of contentious content.

This model was also used in defence of another couple of specific cases flagged up by the interviewer. The first concerned a recent cover story on the New York Times, the headline of which spoke of one YouTube user who found himself brainwashed by the ‘far-right’ as a result of recommendations from YouTube, but the substance of which indicated the opposite. Wojcicki said another tool they use is reducing the recommendations towards contentious content in order to make it harder to find.

The other case was of a US 14-year-old YouTuber called Soph, who recently got one of her videos taken down due to some of its content, but whose channel remains. The utter futility of trying to assess and potentially censor every piece of content uploaded to the platform was raised once more and, not for the first time, Wojcicki attempted to steer the conversation to the 99% of content on YouTube that is entirely benign.

Carlos Maza responded to the interview with the following tweet, inspired by a question from the audience querying the sincerity of Wojcicki’s apology to the LGBTQ community, to which she responded that she is really sincere. Maza’s tweet indicates he won’t be happy until anything perceived as harassment of ‘queer’ people is censored from YouTube.

You can see the full interview below. As well as the prioritised apology, this did seem like a good-faith attempt by Wojcicki to openly address the many complexities and contradictions faced by any censor. It seems very unlikely that her critics will have been swayed by her talk of nuance and context, however, and there is little evidence that this interview solved anything. Still, at least she gave it a go and if nothing else it will have been good practice for the many other such struggle sessions Wojcicki will doubtless have to endure in future.