YouTube, the world’s largest and most popular video streaming website, is famed for its light, fluffy content: animal videos, comedy and movie trailers. But last week, YouTube made an unusually serious move, announcing the launch of its official “human rights” channel.
The channel, which is hosted under the web address youtube.com/humanrights, currently includes a number of videos filmed by activists around the globe, showing everything from Occupy Wall Street protests in New York to violent government raids in Syria.
The channel and the videos that appear there aren’t just the work of YouTube, however. Google-owned YouTube is partnering with WITNESS, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded by Peter Gabriel, and Storyful, a company that describes itself as a “social media ‘field producer’” for Web video.
As YouTube news manager Olivia Ma and WITNESS program director Sam Gregory wrote in a post explaining their channel:
In the case of human rights, video plays a particularly important role in illuminating what occurs when governments and individuals in power abuse their positions. We’ve seen this play out on a global stage during the Arab Spring, for example: during the height of the activity, 100,000 videos were uploaded from Egypt, a 70% increase on the preceding three months. And we’ve seen it play out in specific, local cases with issues like police brutality, discrimination, elder abuse, gender-based violence, socio-economic justice, access to basic resources, and bullying.
Clearly the ambitions are lofty and the intentions are sound. But it remains to be seen just what kind of content the channel will end up hosting in the long-run. After all, while YouTube has indeed hosted a variety of seminal videos about protest movements, injustice and the controversial use of force from the world over — the graphic video of the killing of Iranian civilian Neda Agha-Soltan during the 2009 Iranian post-election uprisings for example — its own guidelines don’t exactly encourage the posting of such distressing real-life conflict.
“Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed,” YouTube’s community guidelines state. “If your video shows someone being physically hurt, attacked, or humiliated, don’t post it.”
Perhaps even more vexing is the question of what content the channel’s managers will categorize as “human rights” and host on the website. Are Palestinian activists’ protests of the Israeli West Bank barrier considered “human rights” content? Would KONY 2012 count?
“WITNESS and Storyful will be working together to source stories within YouTube,” a spokesperson from WITNESS told TPM in an email, continuing:
In terms of human rights, we define human rights within the international human rights charters and covenants that include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as a range of other human rights instruments that focus on such issues as the rights of women, children and minorities.
The focus of the channel is to provide attention not only to the most visible violations of civil and political rights, for example suppression of peaceful protest or police torture, but also to highlight citizen documentation, testimony and action around other human rights issues from forced evictions and the right to housing, to refugee rights and gender-based violence, to international justice issues such as genocide and mass atrocities.
So while YouTube was quick to promote its role in the creation of the channel, the website won’t actually have a direct role in the programming on it.
That said, YouTube does have the final say when it comes to what videos it allows to be hosted broadly across all of the website’s channels. As YouTube’s community guidelines state: “YouTube staff review flagged videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate our Community Guidelines. When they do, we remove them.”
But YouTube also removes videos upon the request of government and copyright owners, in keeping with Google’s overall policy of doing the same with content that appears across its various services, including search. (Coincidentally, the same day that YouTube announced the human rights channel, Google also published an updated version of its biannual “Transparency Report,” an online resource documenting the requests it receives from governments and copyright owners to remove content deemed infringing or unlawful. Although the new version of the report focused on copyright owners, a Google spokesperson told TPM that in general, Google complied with 97 percent of the takedown orders it received.)
Asked about how Google would respond to takedown requests specifically made about content posted on the human rights channel, a YouTube spokesperson told TPM: “When we receive a subpoena or court order, we check to see if it meets both the letter and the spirit of the law before complying. And if it doesn’t we can object or ask that the request is narrowed. We have a track record of advocating on behalf of our users.”
To YouTube’s point, the company stated in a previous version of its Transparency Report that it refused to remove videos of police brutality posted on YouTube when requested to do so by law enforcement agencies, although Google declined to elaborate on which videos these were.
Another issue that the new human rights channel will likely to have to wrangle with: The personal safety of those who create and upload videos related to human rights abuses or other contentious matters, who may be subject to retaliatory action if their identities are found.
A WITNESS spokesperson told TPM that it “cannot guarantee individuals’ safety,” but has provided “guidance and information…on how to film safely,” specifically in a set of instructional videos posted on the new human rights channel.
WITNESS also directed TPM to an app it helped develop called ObscuraCam, which allows Android smartphone users to selectively blur the faces of people captured in video or still images.
“YouTube has also been looking at how to introduce similar technologies in their online editor,” a WITNESS spokesperson told TPM. “We will be promoting these tools to activists whose material is shared on the Channel and to other viewers.”