Ross: YouTube needs to start playing by the rules

Feb 22, 2023, 10:12 AM | Updated: 11:29 am
Dave says it's time for YouTube to play by the same rules as broadcasters. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

All of us in the media are in the business of attracting an audience. And all of us have ways of figuring out what that audience wants.

The fundamental question argued before the Supreme Court yesterday is whether federal law should treat YouTube, owned by Google, the same way it treats a broadcaster like us.

The lawsuit against Google was brought by the family of an exchange student killed in an ISIS attack in Paris in 2015. They claim that YouTube’s algorithm ended up spoon-feeding ISIS videos to the perpetrators of the attack and that the company is therefore held liable.

The problem is they have to tailor their argument to a federal law that was designed to give online companies basically blanket immunity to lawsuits over videos that the company itself didn’t create.

So they’re arguing – OK, YouTube didn’t create these videos, but it DID create the software that recommended them.

That argument seemed to baffle the court – but it’s the best they can do because they’re dealing with an outdated law.

The provision known as Section 230, was passed in the 90’s as a way to protect fledgling internet companies so they could grow.

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It let YouTube create a business model where ordinary people would create videos for free and where the prime directive could be very simple – to keep the largest number of users engaged for the longest possible time.

And when users began to abuse that freedom – well, viewers could flag the abuses AFTER the fact, but ultimately YouTube could say “not our problem”– and keep pushing the poison.

But to me, that’s nonsense.

Platforms like YouTube are no longer innocent puppies struggling to survive.

Now – if an online post ends up going to just a HANDFUL of people and stops there, no problem. That’s the equivalent of neighborhood gossip.

But if posts are being promoted regardless of content, that’s a problem.

And if any post spreads to a hundred, or a thousand, or a million, or a billion people – that’s a broadcast. And the nature of that broadcast content can’t just be ignored.

When a YouTube post becomes a broadcast, why shouldn’t YouTube follow the same rules that I have to follow as a broadcaster?

In this building, we know what we’re putting on the air BEFORE it hits the transmitter. I stand in here listening to everything. If somehow somebody sneaks a rogue story into the system, I have 20 seconds to hit the red button. And if I miss it Colleen will catch it.

But BEYOND what the law requires, each of us here also has a value system based not on some algorithm but on our responsibility to our audience as fellow human beings. We’re here to make sure toxic propaganda doesn’t go unchallenged.

Section 230 may have been essential to get the internet off the ground, but that was more than 25 years ago. Today, YouTube isn’t just an experiment. Practically speaking, it’s the world’s largest broadcaster. Which means you either teach your algorithm to press the red button or take responsibility for the consequences.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Ross: YouTube needs to start playing by the rules