As many have heard, YouTube started another wave of controversy last week by demonetizing the largest conservative commentator on the platform, Steven Crowder. The events came to a head last week, with the CEO of the platform issuing a dramatic personal apology to LGBT people.
Crowder, a comedian and pundit nearing 4 million subscribers, is known in particular on YouTube for his Vox rebuttals. In them, he takes down video essays by the MSNBC-funded corporation point by point. Carlos Maza, the producer of the video essays, claimed Crowder’s attacks on him were racist and homophobic harassment. Rather than taking his feud to Crowder, he chose to report to Big Brother, and demanded that YouTube ban Crowder from the platform.
The controversy (an in-depth look can be found here) was caused by Crowder’s boorish jokes. The comedian is known for his rude ribbing of public figures from Justin Trudeau to John Kasich. While I disliked the way he spoke, there can be no denying that the comments were jokes. Those aimed at Maza went no farther than what Crowder frequently does to guests on his show, coworkers, and even friends of his, like Ben Shapiro.
YouTube initially came to the same conclusion, reporting that, though it does not agree with the tone of Crowder’s videos, they do not violate the platform’s policies. Then came the mob.
Under increasing pressure from several left-leaning media outlets and outraged Twitter users, YouTube quickly caved. Within a day, its leaders had seemingly changed their minds and now decided the videos did violate YouTube policy, and thus would be demonetized. YouTube cited “widespread harm to the YouTube community” caused by the videos.
What harm was that? Crowder has never encouraged violence of any kind. The “damage” was merely causing offense. What kind of standard is that? If an offended internet mob is all it takes to strip a channel of its ability to collect revenue, then it’s only a matter of time before others will be targeted.
This is important because, uncomfortable as it can be to acknowledge, tech giants like Google, which owns YouTube, wield immense power over our lives. Last year, Pew Research found that the amount of Americans getting their news from traditional cable news was in sharp decline, with only 28 percent reporting they often get their information from cable news.
YouTube, on the contrary, just logged its highest number of viewers ever, at more than 1.9 billion. In the United States, about 60 percent of the population is logged in and using the platform. That’s more than twice the reach of all of cable news combined.
Unsurprisingly, many of these viewers use the platform to watch videos on politics. Conservative creators have been immensely successful there, gaining a large Gen X and millennial audience that otherwise would have struggled to find honestly portrayed conservative viewpoints. With such a vast viewership, and its power to demonetize or deplatform at will, YouTube wields staggering influence over what information the average American will, or won’t, hear about.
YouTube is clearly in the wrong in this controversy. It made a judgment based on its rules, then backtracked after taking fire from the left. It then established a new standard for demonetization based on offense rather than content, which can and will be used in the future for similar situations. Considering how powerful YouTube is today, we should be concerned about this mishandling of power. Now the question becomes what, if anything, can be done about it.
We Couldn’t Break Big Tech Up If We Tried
In a regular market, the answer would be simple. Since many are unsatisfied with the service YouTube provides, they could simply switch to another firm, which would offer a better service. Each consumer could choose the forum that provided the service he or she was happiest with, and not bother the others.
This is complicated due to the fact that YouTube is, to an extent, a monopoly. The reason it dominates is simple: convenience. Pew has found that people in the Digital Age place remarkable value on convenience, prioritizing it above even privacy. And it simply isn’t efficient to have two YouTubes. Having all of the content creators on the same free and easily available platform, which you can access through your Google account, is, of course, preferable to going back and forth between dozens of sites to see different content on each.
Let me give you an example of YouTube’s dominance. Trying to find any potential competitors, I tried searching “YouTube competition” on Google. The first result was a Daily Dot article titled “Meet the 5 Companies Trying to Beat YouTube at its Own Game.” It was from 2014.
Of the five, one is out of business. One (Comcast) gave up and now hosts YouTube on its networks instead. One never even materialized. The most successful of the five, and YouTube’s largest “competitor,” French Daily Motion, has less than 1 percent of YouTube’s audience, and appears to be stagnant.
For any competition to realistically arise, they’d need to convince millions of content creators and viewers to leave for them, a herculean task. Every company that has tried has failed. It is here we must bring in Roosevelt.
Lessons From the Gilded Age
There are striking similarities between what is happening today and what happened in a period of American history known as the Gilded Age. As the United States industrialized, business boomed in new markets such as railroads and oil.
However, after a period of extreme innovation, a few major companies came to dominate the new fields. These monopolies, or “trusts,” squeezed out competition, froze innovation, and wielded large power over the public sphere. These included giants such as Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and Carnegie’s U.S. Steel.
In the 19th century, the Republicans were known as the pro-business party, much like they are today. Yet it was them, under the lead of President Teddy Roosevelt, who spearheaded the charge to stop the monopolies’ abusive practices, using a policy of “trust-busting.” This included using a variety of techniques, such as breaking up the worst offenders and regulating others to prevent abuse of their power. It worked.
Perhaps it was even because they were the pro-market party that enabled the Republicans to act so successfully. By not being beholden to more radical elements, they could reform in a way that replaced market monopolies with competitive markets. More radical elements likely would have replaced market monopolies with government monopolies.
How to Trust-Bust YouTube and Facebook
Much like Americans at the dawn of the 20th century, we’re living through an era of technological upheaval. Again, a few giants have used their early starting position to solidify a position of unhealthy power over both the market and society as a whole. The Republican Party is in a unique position today.
Like Teddy Roosevelt before us, we can craft a bipartisan solution that can restrain the power of giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, while ensuring more innovation through a freer market. Like “trust-busting” during Roosevelt’s presidency, we’ll have to handle each giant differently.
For Facebook, simply breaking it up may be the best strategy, as recently argued by none other than its co-founder Chris Hughes. Google, which owns YouTube, wields similar power and may also require a full “trust-bust.” As pointed out by the Department of Justice’s anti-trust chief Makan Delrahim, the scale of its buying power has limited innovation, and this will continue as long as Google exists in its current state.
YouTube, then, could be separated from Google. Yet this may not alone be enough. As the platform would still dominate its market, the problems discussed earlier would continue. An additional step of either labeling it as a publisher or placing some basic regulations upon it to restrain its worst impulses would help there.
The influence of tech giants over the American people has grown exponentially over the last few years, and we have every right to be concerned. On the path we’re on, problems like demonetizing Crowder will soon seem minor. But by looking to history, we can recognize that such problems have happened before and that we have the power, like Roosevelt before us, to stop them before they get out of hand.