Last week, CoinDesk was served a powerful reminder that the ability to disseminate information in the Web 2.0 era remains subject to the permission of a few centralized Internet gatekeepers
This dependency is immensely harmful to society. One way or another, we must reform this system.
It began with an email notification Thursday afternoon that YouTube was shutting down our account because of “severe or repeated violations” of its community guidelines. The message offered no further details and the suspension lasted a frustrating 28 hours.
By Friday evening, after CoinDesk had appealed via various channels, we were back up. In a second email, YouTube said, “After taking another look, we can confirm that it is not in violation of our Terms of Service.” We are still none the wiser on what triggered the shutdown.
Read more: YouTube Suspends CoinDesk’s Channel
We’re grateful YouTube’s appeal process worked for us and are hopeful the reinstatement means it now recognizes CoinDesk for what it is: an independent media organization committed to providing balanced, high-quality news and information that’s free from the influence of vested interests.
Still, the helplessness we felt during the suspension points to a much bigger problem, for everyone.
'Crypto' red flags
Our experience was far from unique. YouTube suspensions have hit many crypto publishing services – some commercial services, others news outlets like us. Elsewhere in the Google empire, including in its ad server business, all sorts of content carrying words like “cryptocurrency” or “crypto” are repeatedly blocked.
That this is happening now is counterproductive to the public interest. Mainstream companies including PayPal, Visa, Tesla, Square, Fidelity, Bank of New York Mellon, Guggenheim Advisors and now Citigroup, to name just a few, are engaging in various ways with cryptocurrencies. People are clamoring for reliable, trustworthy information about this sector. The last thing they need is for organizations with expertise to be muzzled.
But the crypto industry’s concerns are the tip of the iceberg. There’s a worldwide outcry against the excessive power of Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
Part of that backlash is about censorship. This was heard most vociferously from one group after Twitter and Facebook suspended former U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s account in January, but it affects the entire political spectrum, leaving all sorts of voices de-platformed or blocked globally.
The other issue is the internet titans’ de facto monopoly power to employ the user data they gather to dictate what we get to view and, in so doing, corral us into echo chambers of like-minded audiences to be packaged and sold to advertisers.
What’s poorly understood is that the two issues are intertwined. Until we address social media’s “surveillance capitalism” business model, we can’t properly address internet censorship.
What was most frustrating about the CoinDesk suspension was the sheer lack of information on what prompted it.
The only possible clue was that the account went dead during a live broadcast of CoinDesk TV’s “All About Bitcoin” show, right when our Learn Editor, Ollie Leech, was talking matter-of-factly about different proposals for a bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF).
Was this a coincidence or were we mistakenly flagged as an investment firm offering an unregistered security? Was the decision triggered by a YouTube algorithm or did some ill-informed employee unilaterally decide we were doing something wrong? Was it in response to a complaint from a “human flagger,” and how do we know such pecksniffs aren’t CoinDesk competitors or people whose interests are harmed by our coverage?
Asked about the lack of details on our and other cases, YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi noted the company shares its community guidelines publicly. She also said that if, on appeal, content is found to have been removed in error, the company “acts quickly to reinstate it.” According to YouTube’s quarterly enforcement report, it reinstated 83,346 out of 223,008 videos appealed last quarter.
That’s not the level of transparency we need, certainly not when there’s a 37% error rate, by YouTube's own count. We’re still left guessing about the subjective logic in each case. If the cryptocurrency industry knew what words and topics flagged a breach of guidelines in each case, it could engage in a healthy dialogue with YouTube about what’s harmful or illegal and what’s not.
Why won’t YouTube go into detail? Perhaps because Google’s business, much like Facebook’s and other platforms’, depends on protecting the proprietary models and algorithms they use to curate users’ news feeds and generate ad dollars. Their systems for deciding what gets published when and where are their secret sauce.
That leaves the rest of us, publishers and audiences alike, beholden to the threat of unpredictable judgments ostensibly made to “protect” us. If you know anything about how authoritarians deploy arbitrary power, you might find some similarities here.
I use that analogy not to accuse the platforms of playing politics per se – simplistic arguments about a right- or left-wing bias in social media censorship are red herrings – but because, at the end of the day, this is all about power. And in this case, it’s the economic power derived from control over information.
Power shift needed
Right now, there is an excessive concentration of power in the hands of a few organizations uniquely positioned as gatekeeping distributors of the information society needs. Their business interests in managing that information are not necessarily aligned with the public interest. That puts our democracy at risk.
There are various ways under consideration to attack this problem. These include antitrust actions, legislative proposals to treat the platforms as regulated utilities or to force their algorithms open, reforms to the Section 230 rules protecting platforms from lawsuits and tech solutions such as those of decentralized “Web 3.0” blockchain developers.
All face challenges. Because of the value of network effects, it’s going to be difficult to lure people away from Google, Facebook or Twitter onto less populated platforms.
Yet, doing nothing is not an option. Society needs a fairer, more open system of information.