Prager University, a conservative nonprofit that creates educational videos, is suing Google for allegedly discriminating against the digital media organization for its fairly moderate ideological slant.
Specifically, PragerU is accusing YouTube, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet, of restricting or “demonetizing” videos even though they all appear to be innocuous and compliant with the platform’s rules.
PragerU’s videos include former and current professors and scholars from Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, like Alan Dershowitz; prominent athletes like Cobi Jones; popular celebrities like Mike Rowe; and influential figures like Steve Forbes. The majority of the people featured—sans political commentator Dinesh D’Souza—are not usually considered exceptionally controversial. Neither are a lot of the topics, some of which are likely studied in classrooms across the country.
Topics include “Is the Death Penalty Moral” and “The Progressive Income Tax.”
“If you’ve seen any of our videos, they’re very educational, and are very appropriate for ‘young viewers,’” said Craig Strazzeri, chief marketing officer for PragerU, addressing accusations from Google.
YouTube’s help page clarifies that videos containing certain “mature content” will be blocked for users who employ a “Restricted Mode,” a voluntary option in most cases.
Types of content that is obstructed for those viewers include:
- Drugs and alcohol
- Sexual situations
- Mature subjects
- Profane and mature language
- Incendiary and demeaning content
The primary problem with Restricted Mode for PragerU is it’s often not optional for users who are part of or using a larger network, such as the ones operated by schools, libraries, and public institutions.
Demonetization, a less menacing term for revoking sponsorship and thus ad revenue, is another way YouTube can clamp down on content creators, such as what’s being done to PragerU. As the founder of the Internet Creators Guild, Hank Green, notes, making money off of YouTube is no longer an elusive endeavor only afforded to a fraction of the most creative and popular; it is now a legitimate way for some people to earn a steady income, or at least some supplementary funds.
To put this fact into context, Green explains how nowadays there are roughly 300,000 content creators that garner over 100,000 views a month and consequently earn roughly $2,500 a year. And for 1 million views, there are reportedly around 37,000 YouTubers who hit that mark every month.
By demonetizing and restricting a total of 50 videos, PragerU claims that YouTube is targeting it for its relative ideological differences, while also equating it to unlawful censorship and discrimination against its right to freedom of speech.
“Giving viewers the choice to opt in to a more restricted experience is not censorship,” a YouTube spokeswoman told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “In fact, this is exactly the type of tool that Congress has encouraged online services to provide for parents and others interested in a more family-friendly experience online,” she continued, implying that if Congress supports such kinds of initiatives, then it probably doesn’t equate to silencing.
Rick Garnett, a law and political science professor at Notre Dame, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that “as a citizen there are good reasons to think that Google (or employees of the company) have been discriminating on the basis of viewpoint, ideology, etc.”
Gleb Tsipursky, professor at Ohio State University’s history department and co-founder of ProTruthPledge.org, said he sees it similarly.
“PragerU makes a worthwhile argument to the extent that its content is being treated differently than other content that meets YouTube’s terms of service, for two reasons,” Tsipursky told The Daily Caller News Foundation. He added:
First, if content is being censored via age restrictions and demonetization for ideological reasons, which there is some reason to believe is the case since YouTube does not seem to be doing the same to channels on the left, then YouTube (and by extension its parent company Google) is not providing a fair ideological playing field. This first argument is based on fairness. Second, given that the parent company of Google is Alphabet, whose motto is, ‘Do the right thing,’ YouTube’s actions open itself up to charges of hypocrisy, since presumable unfair and unbalanced censorship is not what it would term ‘the right thing.’
Several other content creators around the same time (circa summer and fall 2016) at PragerU also noticed that their videos were being restricted or demonetized, even though some of the original limitations were implemented years ago. It even affected (and still affects) popular YouTube host Dave Rubin, a liberal defector who seems to think that strains of modern progressivism are becoming poisonous.
The culprit ended up being a faulty, or at least poorly concocted, algorithm—an issue that Google has experienced before—in which a number of videos were flagged, or in this case demonetized, when they likely shouldn’t have been. Users lost considerable amounts of revenue and scrambled to get it back. YouTube then made some arguably much-needed reforms to the system, asking people to appeal the once-automatic decision to cut off ad revenue, which, as some observers described, is “not always that easy.”
“At first, we thought it might have been an algorithm or an innocent mistake causing our videos to be restricted,” PragerU’s Strazzeri said. “However, we have it in writing from Google/YouTube that after having their team manually review our restricted videos, they deemed them inappropriate for younger audiences.”
Tsipursky argued that by Google censoring the content, it could actually have the opposite effect, even if the creators like PragerU and Rubin are unhappy at the moment that they are not reaping all of the fruits of their labor.
“I am surprised, given that the motto of Google’s parent company is, ‘Do the right thing.’ Unfair censorship does not seem to be ‘the right thing,’” Tsipursky argued. “Additionally, any heavy-handed censorship is likely to lead to the Streisand effect, ‘Whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.’”
“Trying to suppress this information in an unfair way may well result in this information spreading more widely, which counters the apparent goals of this restriction,” he added.
Aside from accusations of a liberal bias at Google, does PragerU have a legitimate case against the tech giant?
“The First Amendment regulates state action only,” said Garnett. “Although there have been cases in the past where courts have interpreted the idea of state action broadly, and determined that ostensibly private conduct was effectively official action, those cases are rare and tend to be limited to the situations involving state-backed racial discrimination.”
The First Amendment, though, and its potential violation isn’t the only grievance.
Garnett says he doesn’t have enough insight on non-First Amendment claims, however, the others ones related to California law “might well have some merit.”
Not directly addressing demonetization, Google downplayed the effects of Restricted Mode, which is only employed by roughly 1.6 percent of users.
“YouTube is an open platform and, to make it a great place for users, creators, and advertisers, we provide different choices and settings,” the YouTube spokeswoman said. “Restricted Mode is an optional feature used by a small subset of users to filter out videos that may include sensitive or mature content.”
Regardless of how the legal battle plays out, which is one of many for Google, “this worries me as a citizen,” said Garnett. “Especially given the power that Google and other large social media platforms have to shape public discourse and information flow.”
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