By Patrick McAuliffe
Binghamton Review’s YouTube channel is on the cusp of 100 subscribers. It may not seem like much, but for the work that the staff has put into it, especially over this past semester, this is a huge milestone. I couldn’t be more proud of everyone’s efforts, but such a first step only means that we are entering a much larger world with many more pitfalls to doom our online platform. Specifically, new policies enacted by YouTube on January 1st could doom not just our channel, but the livelihoods of many popular creators on the site. Any boomer would be proud to know whose fault this catastrophe is: the kids.
Drafted in 1998, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) forbids websites from gathering data on children under 13 years old, which companies would then use in targeted advertising. For reference, this law is so outdated that it permits parents to send a facsimile or postal letter to the owner of the website giving them permission to collect data on their children, or call a toll-free number for the same purpose. YouTube has always made itself appear compliant with COPPA, including age floors of 16 and 13 in their Terms of Service to even have a YouTube account – either unsupervised or with a parent/guardian’s permission, respectively.
However, almost everything about YouTube’s business model shows that children under 13 are the favored demographic of viewers. In early September of last year, Google was fined $170 million by the Federal Trade Commission for violating COPPA and collecting data on underage viewers, as reported by CBS News. The FTC’s report contains evidence that YouTube told toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel that the site is “today’s leader in reaching children ages 6-11” and “[the] #1 website regularly visited by kids.” Famous YouTube personality Jake Paul has repeatedly bragged about his primarily child audience. Large advertisers like Disney, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Johnson & Johnson, among others, have even boycotted YouTube intermittently since 2016 because they believed that content had become too violent or edgy, in what is called the YouTube “Adpocalypse.”
Starting January 1st, as part of the September lawsuit, YouTube must now be completely compliant with COPPA, and it is taking this mandate in a subtly dangerous way. Channels must self-identify whether their content is made for children, following guidelines set by the FTC, such as: directly targeting children, containing characters or toys that appeal to children (including animations), having a predominantly child audience, or containing activities that appeal to children. This identification must also be made on every video posted by a channel. Channels that unbox toys or perform strange pantomime skits in Elsa and Spider-Man costumes are clearly targeting children, but many channels fall into a grey area. Where does a channel like Jaiden Animations fall, where her videos aren’t specifically made for children but they may find her characters cute and appealing? How does Markiplier identify, where he may shout expletives while playing a horror game but children may laugh at his reactions?
This has been covered – with a sense of dread, I might add – by creators big and small, from PewDiePie to Factnomenal. I think The Game Theorists have done the most thorough job explaining the wording and consequences of these new policies, and I encourage you, dear reader, to check it out. This information is crucial, because these consequences would be dire if the FTC decides that a channel’s content is child-friendly. Creators can be fined up to $42,000 per video that violates the FTC’s guidelines. Beyond this extremely taxing measure, YouTube is removing 80-90% of targeted ads from channels that identify as child-friendly. These new policies are squeezing from both sides: content cannot be too child-friendly because of demonetization or FTC fines, and content cannot be too adult-friendly or violent because of advertiser preferences, bringing more demonetization. It seems like making a living off of YouTube is going to be much harder for many channels in the near future.
We’ve covered the rock; now, we turn our attention to the hard place. YouTube has also implemented policies to crack down on bullying and harassment on the site, announced on December 11th on their blog. This was most likely a response to a clash last June between Carlos Maza, producer of Vox Media’s “Strikethrough” series, and Steven Crowder, a popular conservative commentator and comedian. Crowder frequently joked about Maza’s race and sexuality in his rebuttals of “Strikethrough” episodes, and Maza appealed to YouTube to ban Crowder’s channel, Louder with Crowder. LWC has not been banned since the controversy, although many of Crowder’s videos were demonetized and links to his merchandise store were disabled for a time, as per Insider.
On the day of the new harassment policy’s announcement, YouTube removed a Content Cop video from creator iDubbbz’s channel on former creator LeafyIsHere, presumably for the potentially offensive attacks made on Leafy’s appearance and behaviors by iDubbbz. This removal came as a shock to many content creators, who now realized that, like the new FTC guidelines, YouTube’s new harassment policy is applied to past videos as well as any future videos. Phillip DeFranco and PewDiePie expressed their worries in their respective videos on the topic, and the hashtag #youtubeisoverparty was trending on Twitter on December 11th. iDubbbz even tweeted a screenshot that day of YouTube’s video removal notification with the caption “Download ur favorite bullying vids, before yt takes them down [sic]”.
Looking at this disturbing trend of events over the past few months, I also share the concerns of the community. YouTube was founded as one of the first mainstream platforms that permitted near-limitless creative expression. Naturally, a community founded with these principles would inevitably bring out the worst in people, but PewDiePie believes that preventing such content is best done by fellow creators. He says in his video on the topic: “The only thing keeping these YouTube vultures in check is other YouTubers…” A series like iDubbbz’s Content Cop does a great job of calling out problematic creators and channels, and the backlash from PewDiePie’s occasionally controversial actions has arguably corrected his behavior online, to name a few examples. Regulations for what is published on YouTube can exist, but policing themselves is what YouTube creators can do very well.
What is to be done for both hardworking creators and loyal viewers, now that YouTube’s future is looking grim? Unfortunately, there isn’t much to be done yet. YouTube has a sort of near-monopoly in the video-sharing site market. As Chris Ray Gun puts it in his video on the harassment policy, “Opening up a YouTube channel…on Bitchute as opposed to YouTube is like deciding to open up a pizza parlor in the middle of the desert as opposed to the middle of New York City.” Competitors to YouTube such as the aforementioned BitChute or Vimeo have nowhere near the amount of traffic or technological advancement that YouTube has. There may be more regulation on YouTube, but that is where a creator’s audience can be primarily found.
The point of trying to flush out all of these intricacies in YouTube’s new restrictions and guidelines is one that a free-market-minded person would agree with. If a private entity is no longer behaving in a way that suits you, you have the right to look for and use something better. YouTube is not the free marketplace of creation that it used to be; the most profitable path to YouTube success these days is to be a late-night comedy host. I don’t believe there will be a mass exodus off of YouTube overnight, or even in the short-term, as these new regulations squeeze creators both financially and creatively. However, a better option can and will come along, whether as one of the smaller existing video-sharing sites or an even better site incubating in the mind of a young innovator. Be a conscientious consumer, and when the content you used to enjoy has started to disappear, consider not selling out to one giant company and find the best alternatives for your entertainment needs.