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Not Very Bright: Things are out of hand at YouTube, just they way they planned it

December 29, 2019 Comments off

To paraphrase “Deep Throat” from All the President’s Men, don’t believe the myths the media has created about Google.  The truth is, these people are not very bright and things got out of hand.

Bloomberg’s and  have written one of the most revealing stories yet about just how out of control YouTube really is and just how incompetent YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki is to handle it all (“Inside YouTube’s Year of Responsibility“).  (How Susan W came to have the YouTube job I’m sure has nothing to do with being the ex-sister-in-law of Google founder Sergei Brin.)

It boils down to this:  Google has been caught out.  YouTube was founded on the usual Google bedrock principle–steal everything.  Beg forgiveness if you get caught and emote about innovation, free speech, and any other hackneyed shibboleth that contributed to your D grade in freshman English comp from those teachers who didn’t understand your true brilliance.

Those “principles” may work for the Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up whilst inside their Mountain View bubble, but it was only a matter of time before the public began to catch on.  And the apocalyptic algorithm is that more the Google scaled, the more likely it was that the public would catch on like an appointment in Samarra.  When that happened, somebody may find out how bad it really is behind that curtain.  Because the truth is, these Googlers are not that bright, and things definitely got out of hand at scale.

So it was only a matter of time.  This is important because Google’s YouTube is the largest video search platform in the world and is the second largest search engine–right behind Google.com.  Unless you want that corrupting influence being piped into your children’s brains, you may want to think about how to stop it.

That ticking clock resonates in one of the most telling quotes in the Bloomberg post from YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki:

“If we were held liable for every single piece of content that we recommended, we would have to review it,” she said. “That would mean there would be a much smaller set of information that people would be finding. Much, much smaller.”

Ms. Wojcicki just described both the essence of the value gap and why YouTube is nothing like television no matter how many times Googlers aspire for it to be true.  YouTube is not “disrupting” television; rather it is corrupting television.  YouTube is television’s distorted mutant.

When Ms. Wojcicki says there would be a “much smaller set of information that people would be finding,” the clear implication is that there would be much less content for YouTube to sell ads against if YouTube took responsibility for everything on their platform.  You know, take responsibility like TV does.  (YouTube’s endless braying about “fair use” is misplaced–the issue is about taking responsibility before you get to the infringement that leads to the fair use defense.)

Ms. Wojcicki’s statement does not mean that just because the YouTube offering would be smaller it would be worse, which is the implication it seems she would like you to draw.  It doesn’t mean the status quo is “better” either, it just means that in an accountable future YouTube would take responsibility for YouTube being an honest broker.  It also doesn’t mean that anyone would be “censored” unless you think enforcing standards and practices on the digital equivalent of the public airwaves is “censorship” or you think artists protecting their rights impermissibly restricts speech.

Ms. Wojcicki’s statement also provides some insight into YouTube’s current crisis involving children using the service.  Because at Google, small is not beautiful–scale is beautiful.  And the consequences be damned.  Bloomberg observes:

[In addition to copyright infringement, currently] YouTube’s biggest challenge is kids’ privacy. In September, the FTC fined Google for illegally tracking children for its ads business, forcing significant changes to YouTube’s operations….The FTC is now rewriting its COPPA rules [the US law that protects children online] and has invited public comment. In a filing, Google told the agency it was worried about any laws forcing it to “identify and police” videos aimed at kids. The company was, in effect, arguing it couldn’t know for sure the age of its audience and shouldn’t be punished for that.

Let’s understand something–illegally tracking children for ads has nothing to do with standards and practices.  It has nothing to do with innovation, free speech or fair use.  Tracking kids for ads was not an algorithmic glitch, either.  This problem is entirely human-made and is entirely the result of choices made by humans who work for Ms. Wojcicki, if not Ms. Wojcicki herself.  The problem is made by the people who are supposed to be in charge, who stockholders task with making good choices for the company (in this case, Larry Page and Ms. Wojcicki’s ex-brother in law, see my NY Daily News op-ed on Google’s dual class voting stock).

Google wants all of the benefits and none of the burdens of operating a media business.  Their justification is that they do it online.  If kids or artists or advertisers get chewed up in the process, they’d have you believe that it’s not their fault.

In one sense, they have a point.  Regulators have allowed them to get away with a host of travesties for 15 years all based on a tortured reading of two safe harbors (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the DMCA).  You can’t really blame Google for thinking that having established a business model based on corruption that has made a lot of people filthy rich, they should be allowed to continue to get away with the free ride.

YouTube profits from chaos and the sheer scale of so many harms to the society from a tortured expression of the important values of fair use to blatant child endangerment.  YouTube executives supposedly serve society, at least according to the nepotism of Silicon Valley royalty.

But if you expect them to meaningfully disrupt the highly profitable situation that they’ve let get out of hand at scale, the current executive team will disappoint if left to their own devices.

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