Is YouTube Cracking Down on Free Speech with New ‘Harassment Policy’?

December 11th, 2019 4:39 PM

The video sharing platform and sister organization to Google may be cracking down on free speech -- this time under the guise of protecting users from “harassment.” YouTube’s Vice President and Global Head of Trust & Safety Matt Halprin released a blog on Wednesday, Dec. 11, titled “An update to our harassment policy.”

As of today, YouTube’s blog announced “a series of policy and product changes that update how we tackle harassment on YouTube” from both creators and commenters. Free speech advocates may be rightly concerned with slippery terms such as “malicious insults,” “veiled threats” via simulated violence and, of course, “hate speech.”

“Harassment hurts our community by making people less inclined to share their opinions and engage with each other.” Haplrin wrote. “We heard this time and again from creators, including those who met with us during the development of this policy update.” Halprin said that his company met with a wide range of advisors from various political backgrounds, “from organizations that study online bullying or advocate on behalf of journalists, to free speech proponents and policy organizations from all sides of the political spectrum.” YouTube reiterated this message in a tweet, stating, “we consulted with a wide array of creators, experts and organizations to update our harassment” policy.”

Halprin tried to assure those concerned with free speech that they have nothing to fear in stating, “We remain committed to our openness as a platform and to ensuring that spirited debate and a vigorous exchange of ideas continue to thrive here.” But Halprin asserted that YouTube will “not tolerate harassment.”

“We’ve always removed videos that explicitly threaten someone, reveal confidential personal information, or encourage people to harass someone else,” Halprin claimed. But in the future, “our policies will go a step further and not only prohibit explicit threats, but also veiled or implied threats.”

Such threats were described as including content that simulates violence or language that suggests physical violence might actually occur. “No individual should be subject to harassment that suggests violence,” wrote Halprin.

When it comes to “hate speech,” YouTube proclaimed that it “will no longer allow content that maliciously insults someone based on protected attributes such as their race, gender expression, or sexual orientation. This applies to everyone, from private individuals, to YouTube creators, to public officials.”

YouTube wrote that sometimes harassment can also take the shape of a pattern of behavior across multiple videos, suggesting that such repeated behavior could run afoul their new harassment policy “even if any individual video doesn’t cross our policy line.”

In response, YouTube will be “tightening our policies for the YouTube Partner Program (YPP) to get even tougher on those who engage in harassing behavior and to ensure we reward only trusted creators. Channels that repeatedly brush up against our harassment policy will be suspended from YPP, eliminating their ability to make money on YouTube.”

In addition, Halprin wrote, “We may also remove content from channels if they repeatedly harass someone. If this behavior continues, we’ll take more severe action including issuing strikes or terminating a channel altogether.”

Halprin then pivoted to discuss commenters who leave notes in the comment section beneath videos.

“We know that the comment section is an important place for fans to engage with creators and each other,” Halprin suggested. “At the same time, we heard feedback that comments are often where creators and viewers encounter harassment.” This sort of toxic commentary, continued Halprin, “not only impacts the person targeted by the harassment, but can also have a chilling effect on the entire conversation.”

To those concerned with freedom of speech, YouTube attempted to reassure readers that not just any negative commentary would be censored. “We’ve continued to fine tune our systems to make sure we catch truly toxic comments,” Halprin suggested, “not just anything that’s negative or critical, and feedback from creators has been positive.”

The blog also touted YouTube’s recent changes with regard to borderline content and authoritative sources, breaking from its “open video platform” montra. Halprin noted that the platform is “reducing the spread of borderline content [and] raising up authoritative voices when people are looking for breaking news and information and rewarding trusted creators and artists that make YouTube a special place.” He also noted that the platform “is committed to continue revisiting our policies regularly to ensure that they are preserving the magic of YouTube, while also living up to the expectations of our community.”