On Monday, the conservative educational nonprofit Prager University filed a lawsuit against YouTube and its parent company, Google, for “intentional” censorship of conservative speakers. YouTube made more than fifteen percent of the organization’s videos impossible to access in its “restrictive mode” — meant to protect younger and more sensitive viewers — and only slowly provided contradictory answers for why they were restricted.
“Watch any one of our videos and you’ll immediately realize that Google/YouTube censorship is entirely ideologically driven,” PragerU founder Dennis Prager declared in a statement on the lawsuit. He accused Google and YouTube of “engaging in an arbitrary and capricious use of their ‘restricted mode’ and ‘demonetization’ to restrict non-left political thought.”
“This is speech discrimination plain and simple, censorship based entirely on unspecified ideological objection to the message or on the perceived identity and political viewpoint of the speaker,” former California Governor Pete Wilson, partner at the law firm Browne Georg Ross, said in the statement.
PragerU staff members first discovered the alleged censorship in July 2016, according to the lawsuit. Since that time, “Google/YouTube have failed to offer any reasonable or consistent explanation for why the content of those videos is subject to restricted content filtering.”
Around August 5, PragerU contacted its Google/YouTube account manager to request 16 of its videos be removed from the age-restricted content list. Google/YouTube responded by email saying,”Our Product Specialist reviewed this, and at this time the videos are not safe enough for Restricted Mode so they will remain as is and were correctly classified.”
In September, PragerU asked which “specific actions” it could take to remove the 21 videos then on the restricted content list. That very day, Google/YouTube responded, “As mentioned in the previous emails, at this time, your videos aren’t appropriate for the younger audiences and hence they’re not appearing in the restricted mode search results. I’d recommend you to go through our Community Guidelines and align them with your content to see where it has violated.”
In October, PragerU once again requested “an explanation for why” their videos were restricted. The next month, Google/YouTube responded, “At this time the videos have been algorithmically included in Restricted Mode and no manual action was needed.”
When YouTube restricted a video by a pro-Israeli Muslim activist as “hate speech,” PragerU again requested it be unrestricted. The video was the opposite of hate speech, as it discussed how best to resist hatred and anti-Semitism. PragerU warned that failure to remove content restrictions would constitute “de facto censorship” that “will prevent hundreds of thousands, or millions of people from hearing [the video’s] valuable message.”
In July 2017, Google/YouTube conceded that they could not tell whether the PragerU videos had been restricted after a manual review or by an automated algorithm. PragerU sent Google/YouTube a list of their videos that had been restricted, along with a comparative list of videos on the same topics from liberal perspectives that were not restricted.
On October 12, 2017, Google/YouTube admitted that “human reviews” had been conducted on many of the PragerU videos, suggesting that the restrictions and demonetization of PragerU videos were the result of human decision, rather than algorithm error. Again, Google/YouTube declined to provide explanation for why the videos were restricted or demonetized.
Also this month, Google/YouTube temporarily discontinued PragerU’s ad grants account — an account that provides stipends to nonprofit organizations — for over six days. When PragerU requested Google/YouTube reconsider, they responded, “No chance.”
This past March, YouTube and Google publicly admitted that they had improperly censored LGBT videos using their restricted mode filtering. They had censored these videos based on the identity and orientation of the speaker rather than the content of the video.
As in that case, PragerU’s lawsuit argues that “Google/YouTube use their restricted mode filtering not to protect younger or sensitive viewers from ‘inappropriate’ video content, but as a political gag mechanism to silence PragerU” (emphasis original). The suit alleges Google/YouTube did this “because PragerU is a conservative nonprofit organization that is associated with and espouses the views of leading conservative speakers.”
“This is speech discrimination plain and simple: censorship based entirely on the perceived identity and political viewpoint of the speaker not on the content of the speech,” the lawsuit alleged.
The suit demonstrates this by presenting a chart presenting its restricted videos and other videos on similar topics that were not restricted. For example, one video on the Korean War, narrated by PJ Media columnist Victor Davis Hanson, is restricted, while many similar videos on the same topic were not.
Another double standard emerged from the censoring of the PragerU video “Are the Police Racist?” but not similar offerings by Bill Maher and Al Jazeera. Similarly, the PragerU video “Do Not Murder” was restricted, while Harvard University’s more controversially titled “The Moral Side of Murder” was not.
For a sample of PragerU videos, here is the organization’s latest offering on how to raise kids who are smart about money.
Technically, a First Amendment free speech case could not usually be leveled against a private company. PragerU argued that YouTube is a public forum, however.
Approximately 1.3 billion people use YouTube, and more than 30 million members of the general public visit the video platform every day, the lawsuit noted. Four hundred hours of videos are uploaded every hour, and the number of hours in which people watch videos on YouTube is estimated at 3.25 billion. More video has been uploaded to YouTube by public users than has been created by the major U.S. television networks in 30 years.
As the Wall Street Journal‘s Ian Lovett reported, this lawsuit escalates the battle between YouTube and content creators over how much control the tech giant should exercise over what content appears on the site, and how it appears. In March, advertisers left the site because their ads were running on extremist and racist videos.
This backlash led YouTube to police content more thoroughly, demonetizing “hateful, offensive and derogatory” videos, and give advertisers more control over where their ads appear. While these changes may help advertisers, the increasing trend of demonetization has angered many content creators.
Google has also come under fire for firing senior software engineer James Damore after he published a controversial memo inside the company. Ironically, he accused Google of being an “ideological echo chamber,” and his dismissal arguably proved his point.
PragerU is not the first conservative organization allegedly targeted for Internet censorship by Google or in general.
Last December, Amazon denied D. James Kennedy Ministries access to its charity connection service, Amazon Smile. In August, Google sent the Liberty Conservative an ultimatum — remove a “hateful” article or lose vital ad revenue. Also that month, Vanco Payments withdrew its service from the Ruth Institute, taking away that organization’s ability to process donations online.
Also in August, ProPublica “reporter” Lauren Kirchner sent an email to conservatives like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller that amounted to a threat. “I am contacting you to let you know that we are including your website in a list of cites that have been designated as hate or extremist by the American Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
The email noted, “We have identified several tech companies on your website: PayPal, Amazon, Newsmax, and Revcontent. Can you confirm that you receive funds from your relationship with those tech companies? How would the loss of those funds affect your operations, and how would you be able to replace them?”
As PJ Media’s Paula Bolyard paraphrased, “Nice website you’ve got there. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”
PragerU’s lawsuit is vitally important, because Internet censorship of conservatives — and also of liberals — is utterly unacceptable. The Internet needs to be a free market of ideas, and if PragerU can be marginalized on YouTube, who’s next?