Welcome to the first entry in our new feature, CNET to the Rescue. In it, I'm going to look out for your rights as a consumer of technology, try to help you save money, keep advertisers honest, and in general do what I can to keep tech vendors from taking advantage of you. If you've got a consumer complaint, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or join the CNET to the Rescue forum.
On March 3, Chris Christensen, author of the Amateur Traveler Web site, posted a worrisome entry on his blog: Did this video get me banned from YouTube... for life? He said three weeks ago all the video reports he'd posted to YouTube for embedding in his travel blog, plus his channel on YouTube itself, had been disabled. Three weeks after communicating with Google through what he thought were the proper channels, he finally received a terse response to his query that left him as confused as he was originally--and his 39 innocuous travel videos remained banned.
I've looked at Christensen's videos and see nothing untoward in them that would merit their removal from YouTube. On one video, he does discuss and show a topless beach, but even in that video there is no frontal nudity.
I've taken on this issue for CNET to the Rescue because it highlights things that need to change in the way Google polices the user-generated content that makes up YouTube. The good news is that after I talked with Google about this issue, the company said it would start the process of updating its appeals processes to prevent this confusion and hopefully to safeguard users like Christensen who rely on YouTube for their businesses. Also, I'm happy to report that YouTube finally put Christensen's videos back online.
Relying on the kindness of strangers
Christensen told me he often uses other services to embed his videos on his site, but that having his content removed from YouTube was a potential threat to his business as a blogger, since having his travel videos removed from the YouTube search engine made it difficult for new users to find his content. "You just can't beat YouTube for discovery," he told me.
But for all YouTube users, videos remain online only through the ongoing assent of others. If people are unhappy with a video on the site, they can flag it as breaking one of several community guidelines. This community policing feature is key to YouTube's ongoing function. As Google said in a statement about this case:
With 20 hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube, we count on our community members to know our Community Guidelines and to flag content they believe violates them. We review all flagged content quickly, and if we find that a video does violate the guidelines, we remove it, on average in under an hour. We also have a team that is dedicated to identifying and removing spam from YouTube. Occasionally, a video flagged by users or identified by our spam team is mistakenly taken down. When this is brought to our attention, we review the content and take appropriate action, including restoring video or videos that had been removed.
A key takeaway from this: when users flag videos on YouTube for takedown, they're not actually removed until Google employees have a look, too. But in this instance, the first line of Google's on-staff reviewers clearly agreed with the community flags and disabled Christensen's content.
Google's policy is to not comment on why a user's videos are disabled, but I was pointedly told that being flagged as "spam" is a particularly tough rap, since users can flag things in this category for offenses as vague as having a misleading title. If three videos from a user's account are taken down as spam, Google's three-strikes law kicks in and the user's account gets locked and all its videos disabled. It looks like that's what happened to the Amateur Traveler videos.
Nowhere to turn
The next breakdown occurred when Christensen tried to find out what happened and how he could reverse Google's ban. After several attempts to figure out what was going on, he got an e-mail that contained this:
Your account has been found to have violated our Community Guidelines. Your account has now been terminated. Please be aware that you are prohibited from accessing, possessing or creating any other YouTube accounts. We are unable to provide specific detail regarding your account suspension or your video's removal. For more information on what we consider inappropriate content or conduct while using YouTube, please visit our Community Guidelines and Tips...
Left with nothing concrete to fight against, Christensen railed on his blog about this situation. I talked with a Google rep at some length about this issue, and for a while, the conversation bordered on the surreal. The spokesperson wanted to provide me with off-the-record and on-background information about how Google's policing system works with regards to the community guidelines, which are open for all to see. I did not agree to go off-the-record since I believe Google's policies must be transparent for the system to work.
The upshot, though, is this: If enough people see a video and don't like it, they can flag it under one of several community guidelines and likely get it disabled. The user who uploaded the video is not told why his video was flagged, and when he challenges the removal, he's only reminded to study the guidelines to make sure that further uploads are not in violation.
Google employees, burdened under what sounds like far too much community input, make quick and seemingly opaque judgments that can't be easily appealed.
Google will update its process
But all is not lost. It does look like this situation will change. Google's followup communication to me on the Christensen case was this:
We understand that this is an issue and we're sorry for this experience but grateful for it to have been brought to our attention. We're in the process of making some changes to our appeals process.
I have no idea what Google is going to do to fix this problem. I suspect Google doesn't yet either. But I am guardedly optimistic that the appeals process will be clarified or made more transparent. I'll report on the changes that Google promises once the company makes them. If they don't make these changes, I'll report on that.
In the meantime, if you have content on YouTube that mysteriously vanishes, Google sent me a list of steps, which I've amended here, that you can follow to send a query to the right place:
- Go to the Safety Center (link at the bottom of every page).
- Click on the radio button "Community Guidelines Violations."
- Click on Account Suspensions (right-hand corner). You will get a message that says "Read about inappropriate content"
- Click on Contact Us, then Video Removal, then Video Removal Inquiry, then Learn more about video removals. From there the steps are clear.