Over the years, we are all faced with countless decisions that will determine the direction of our lives: Where to go to college. Where to live. Who to marry. What career to pursue. Where to work. What home to buy. Whether or not to have kids. How to raise them. Where they should go to college.
These are the kinds of decisions that everyone, at some point, faces. And they are not all easy ones. Thus, we should relish the easy ones: Where to get dinner. What to wear today. Chicken or fish for dinner.
Like people, companies are also faced with decisions – and some easier than others.
That’s why it is perplexing to us that a company like Google, which pays millions to its top-executives, can, with great regularity, make course-altering decisions seemingly with the snap of a finger, while letting the low-hanging fruit rot and decay – unharvested, unpicked, uneaten.
The latest example of this took place recently, on August 22, when the search behemoth announced, via blog post, that they had deleted 210 YouTube channels that had “behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.” The accounts allegedly utilized VPNs and other tactics to disguise their origin and engage in behavior “commonly associated with coordinated influence operations.”
It’s difficult to tell from the post whether the terminated accounts were in support of the pro-democracy protestors, or against them.
On the surface, this decision seems to be a no-brainer – but to understand why this is perplexing to an outsider, you need to understand a bit about Google’s history.
Google has stated clearly and continuously, since its inception almost 20 years ago, that it does not want to be the arbiter of the internet. They do not want to be responsible for determining what’s free speech and what’s not, and they do not want to be responsible for determining between right and wrong.
They have positioned themselves as neutral vessels where all information flows back and forth, like water through pipes. And, after shutting down 210 accounts for no clearly stated reason, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki was quick to double down on this ethos of neutrality. In a letter to YouTube creators she touted the platform’s “commitment to openness” and to “leaving up content that is outside the mainstream, controversial, or even offensive.”
That is why their sudden decision to take down these videos is newsworthy. With regard to this specific decision, and based on the information they actually provided, we happen to agree with them – disinformation, especially as blatant as this, has no place on a website where many people go to form opinions.
But, if Google is so quick to make difficult decisions like these, which might appear to run counter to its sacred ethos, why won’t they make the far easier decision to aggressively end the clear-cut, plainly illegal activity that occurs on its platforms?
Here’s one prime example: piracy.
Pirated films, videos, audiobooks, music recordings, and even live sports events continue to exist on YouTube in staggering quantities. There are tools to deal with some of it, but they aren’t getting the job done. Content ID is an imperfect tool that provides content owners a way to track down their unauthorized videos and decide their fate, but it’s only available to large-scale license holders such as movie studios and record labels, leaving mid-range and small artists in the lurch. These creatives and distributors can file takedown notices, but the process is highly inefficient and frequently maddening for those who lack the resources to spend time trying to protect their work on the world’s biggest video platform when they should be out creating and making a living.
So, why doesn’t YouTube, with the vast resources of a corporate giant worth hundreds of billions of dollars at its disposal and world-class artificial intelligence resources, create technology that proactively seeks out copyrighted content and keeps it from being uploaded to begin with?
Why doesn’t the platform do more to give millions of creative people around the world the peace of mind that their content won’t be taken without their permission? After all, if they have the technology to single out accounts surreptitiously run by despotic regimes – surely, they have technology that can tell them whether a song belongs to YouTubeUserXoXo or an indie record label, right?
Pirated content is clearly, and plainly, illegal. Dealing with it at a deep and systemic level should be an easy decision.
The next time Google is trying to make judgements about what should and shouldn’t be on their platform, why not start with piracy? Why not relish the easy decision – and MAKE IT.
At a time when the company is willing to make truly difficult decisions that balance the risk of censorship against the risk of disinformation, it faces a far easier decision about how to address massive global piracy on its platform – flip the switch!
Google should just have fish for dinner – easy peasy.