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Does YouTube Ad Policy Equate to Censorship? Give Me a Break

Dear #YouTubeIsOverParty complainers: Quit your whining.

In the last few days, a swift (and predictable) backlash has swept across the YouTube creator community, after users began receiving notices that some of their videos were ineligible for advertising because they violated the service’s longstanding advertiser-friendly content guidelines.

It’s completely fair that advertisers should have an expectation that their promos will not be placed against stuff that is offensive. But many YouTubers have taken umbrage, and they’re shocked — shocked! — that this is going on. Some have even alleged that the policy is tantamount to censorship.

“By taking away monetization, it is a form of censorship,” Philip DeFranco, a vlogger with more than 4.5 million followers, said in a video hyperbolically titled “YouTube Is Shutting Down My Channel and I’m Not Sure What To Do.” He complained that ads were disabled recently for 12 of his videos apparently because they included “excessively strong language” or covered “controversial or sensitive subjects.”

Let’s get real. Advertisers won’t pay for — or have their brands associated with — just any random F-bomb-laced, bizzaro rant. Marketers are paying the bill, and they should have total discretion in what they buy against. Take Racka Racka, a popular YouTube channel run by Aussie twins who love crazy backyard stunts and bloody horror shorts: They’re free to post all the chainsaw-wielding Ronald McDonald videos they want, but they can’t expect Mickey D’s to sponsor them.

“If makers wish to participate in a commercial marketplace, they must live with its sensitivities,” said Bob Garfield, co-host of “On the Media” on public radio. “As long as the government isn’t trying to stifle speech, move along. There’s nothing to see here, folks.”

Meanwhile, in case you missed this, YouTube’s ad-friendly content policies are not even new.

The Google-owned site has had such standards in place ever since it first launched its revenue-sharing program for partners in 2007. YouTube says it is now highlighting videos that are “unmonetized” in an effort to be more transparent to its creator base. Plus, YouTube now has introduced a formal way to appeal decisions about ad-unfriendly content, whereas it was ad-hoc before. So, no good deed goes unpunished. If there’s a knock on YouTube here, it’s that it failed to better communicate what it was doing before sending out email notifications to creators.

Another big point, evidently missed on the #YouTubeIsOverParty camp: YouTube is literally years ahead of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other services that trade in user-generated content in sharing ad revenue with creators. Twitter just this week opened its video-ad program to U.S. creators; as for the other guys, good luck trying to get money from them unless you’re a sizable media company, regardless of how advertiser-friendly your material is.

There’s a conspiracy theory afoot that YouTube recently altered the language of its ad-friendly content policy and applied it retroactively. But it has been in place with the same basic prohibitions since at least March 2015, according to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

One of the concerns raised by DeFranco and others is that YouTube’s ad-approved content guidelines specify that “controversial or sensitive subjects and events” are out of bounds, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies. That’s “even if graphic imagery is not shown” (verbiage that has been part of YouTube’s policy for at least a year).

“How are you supposed to cover news?” DeFranco asked rhetorically, noting that his video about Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of raping an unconscious woman, was removed from the advertising queue. It may be that YouTube is overcorrecting — perhaps algorithmically flagging videos that have, say, “rape” in the title — but with hundreds of hours of video uploaded to the site each second, it needs some automated process. Is that a perfect solution? No, but again, YouTube is giving creators a way to appeal any decision they feel is unfair.

Ultimately, YouTubers should embrace the move to make the service more of a clean, well-lighted place for advertising. By making the service more brand-safe, that should mean even more ad dollars will flow into the system, as Defy Media president Keith Richman pointed out in a blog post on Medium.

“YouTube is in the business of selling advertising, and in particular is in the business of trying to get advertising dollars that are allocated to television to shift over to their platform,” Richman wrote. “Having sat down with many agencies and brands, I can assure you that one of their biggest fears is that their advertisements will show up against content that does not adhere to the standards listed above. The easiest way for someone to defend buying ads on television versus digitally is to point to the lack of those standards online.”

Online video, Richman argued, must become more like TV to flourish and get higher ad rates: “Yes, sometimes it is more difficult to have to adhere to standards, but this is no different than the way creators on television have operated for decades.”

By the way: As of this writing, YouTube continues serving ads against DeFranco’s video in which he levels the censorship charge (and says “f—ing” twice). It has 3.2 million views so far.

At the end of the day, the truth is YouTube isn’t censoring any speech, as long as it complies with the site’s broader terms-of-use prohibitions on pornography, hate speech, copyright infringement and the like. You’re still free to post whatever weird and controversial content you like — you just aren’t necessarily entitled to pocket any money from it.

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