YOUTUBE’S GUN VIDEO TYRANNY

VIDEO CHAN­NELS BE­GIN TO FEEL THE FALL­OUT FROM YOUTUBE’S FIREARM CON­TENT RE­STRIC­TIONS

Recoil - - Contents - BY AMY BUSHATZ

Video Chan­nels Be­gin to Feel the Fall­out from YouTube’s Firearm Con­tent Re­stric­tions

YouTube is the land of peo­ple do­ing stupid stuff, cats, and, for firearms en­thu­si­asts, guns — lots and lots of guns. From tu­to­ri­als and re­views to footage of shoot­ers just do­ing their thing, it’s all on YouTube for your view­ing plea­sure.

For now.

That’s be­cause when a new YouTube gun video pol­icy went into ef­fect in April, just what is and isn’t taboo is far from set­tled. In­stead of thou­sands of ed­u­ca­tional and in­for­ma­tive videos on vir­tu­ally any kind of weapon imag­in­able, YouTube could in­stead be home to more cats.

The idea that firearms con­tent, seen by many as both a First and Sec­ond Amend­ment is­sue, could be tossed by some­one who knows noth­ing about gun cul­ture has video pro­duc­ers en­ter­ing dig­i­tal sur­vival­ist mode.

They aren’t play­ing a game of wait and see. They’re brac­ing for im­pact.

“The en­tire in­dus­try uses YouTube as a repos­i­tory of in­for­ma­tion. It’s huge,” said Jon Pat­ton, whose chan­nel and brand The Gun Col­lec­tive has al­most 130,000 YouTube sub­scrib- ers and about 12.5 mil­lion views. “The same way Face­book could change elec­tions, YouTube could si­lence an en­tire in­dus­try.”

THE POL­ICY

YouTube made the change qui­etly in late March, long be­fore a woman opened fire at the com­pany’s Cal­i­for­nia head­quar­ters killing her­self and in­jur­ing three oth­ers. Rather than just pro­hibit­ing videos fea­tur­ing the much ma­ligned bump­stock, the new pol­icy cre­ates bans for spe­cific con­ver­sions or per­fectly le­gal ac­ces­sories, and opens the door to sweeping dele­tions.

“YouTube pro­hibits cer­tain kinds of con­tent fea­tur­ing firearms. Specif­i­cally, we don’t al­low con­tent that: In­tends to sell firearms or cer­tain firearms ac­ces­sories through di­rect sales (e.g., pri­vate sales by in­di­vid­u­als) or links to sites that sell these items,” the pol­icy reads. “These ac­ces­sories in­clude but may not be lim­ited to ac­ces­sories that en­able a firearm to sim­u­late au­to­matic fire or con­vert a firearm to au­to­matic fire (e.g., bump­stocks, ro­tary trig­gers, drop-in auto sears, con­ver­sion kits), and high ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines (i.e., mag­a­zines or belts car­ry­ing more than 30 rounds).”

And then it goes on, ban­ning con­tent that “pro­vides in­struc­tions on man­u­fac­tur­ing a firearm, am­mu­ni­tion, high ca­pac­ity mag­a­zine, home­made si­lencers/sup­pres­sors, or cer­tain firearms ac­ces­sories such as those listed above. This also in­cludes in­struc­tions on how to con­vert a firearm to au­to­matic or sim­u­lated au­to­matic fir­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, [or] shows users how to in-stall the above-men­tioned ac­ces­sories or mod­i­fi­ca­tions.”

As of this writ­ing, YouTube, owned by Google’s par­ent com­pany Al­pha­bet, has been si­lent on the in­spi­ra­tion for its ex­panded gun pol­icy, but it’s not hard to guess the cause.

In Oc­to­ber 2017 the site pro­hib­ited videos demon­strat­ing bump­stocks or how to “con­vert firearms to make them fire more quickly,” YouTube of­fi­cials said in state­ments at the time. The most re­cent pol­icy change was made about one month af­ter a for­mer stu­dent killed 17 peo­ple at

a high school in Park­land, Florida, and just days be­fore thou­sands at­tended a gun con­trol rally in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

It’s easy to see how the new pol­icy raises ques­tions among firearm pros.

For ex­am­ple, block­ing con­tent that “pro­vides in­struc­tions on man­u­fac­tur­ing a firearm” clearly rules out how-to videos for home­made guns, but what about a tu­to­rial on as­sem­bling a gun af­ter clean­ing? And if “con­ver­sion kits” are banned, does that in­clude, for ex­am­ple, in­stalling af­ter­mar­ket stocks?

But for many pro­duc­ers, the stick­i­est prob­lem of all lies in the new rule against con­tent that “in­tends to sell firearms or cer­tain firearms ac­ces­sories.”

Although YouTube-gen­er­ated ad­ver­tis­ing has long been blocked for videos that Google sees as fit­ting that cat­e­gory, the ex­is­tence of the videos them­selves has never been at risk.

In a world of con­tent pumped full of pro­mo­tions, re­views, and fire­power that mar­keters hope will in­spire view­ers to get out their wallets, ban­ning videos that could fit an “in­tends to sell” de­scrip­tion gives YouTube the lee­way to cen­sor pretty much any­thing, pro­duc­ers wor­ried.

Pat­ton and oth­ers al­ready know that in­clud­ing links to prod­ucts in their video de­scrip­tions, a com­mon prac­tice, means their pages won’t have YouTube placed ads on or in them. But the new rules seem to say that in­clud­ing any of those links or pro­mot­ing guns at all could also sim­ply mean their chan­nels will cease to ex­ist.

THE MODER­A­TOR PROB­LEM

Un­like the ma­jor­ity of video pro­duc­ers with small to mid­size fol­low­ings, Tim Harm­sen’s al­most 700,000 YouTube sub­scribers on his Mil­i­tary Arms Chan­nel grants him some­thing oth­ers don’t have: ac­cess. He has a di­rect line to YouTube through a YouTube rep­re­sen­ta­tive with in­sider in­tel.

What he’s learned by ques­tion­ing that con­tact since the an­nounce­ment is, well, not much. So far, he said, his re­quests for clar­i­fi­ca­tion haven’t re­ally been an­swered. If YouTube of­fi­cials un­der­stand the nu­ances of their own gun pol­icy, they haven’t told Harm­sen.

YouTube and, by ex­ten­sion, Google are mak­ing the rules, but it ap­pears that no one there knows how to play the game, Harm­sen said.

As part of its “com­mu­nity poli­cies,” YouTube has about a dozen con­tentspe­cific rule cat­e­gories around top­ics like “hate speech,” “child en­dan­ger­ment,” and, of course, “firearms.” Those rules are po­liced through lay­ers of of­fi­cial and un­of­fi­cial con­tent mod­er­a­tors.

But just what train­ing those em­ploy­ees or the vol­un­teer flag­gers have in the nu­ances of guns is any­one’s guess, said Harm­sen.

“In my con­ver­sa­tions with Google I said, ‘If you un­leash these 10,000 mod­er­a­tors … it’s ba­si­cally a ban on all firearms videos be­cause they don’t know jack sh*t about firearms,’” he said. “Pretty much any­thing firearms re­lated to an un­trained eye, these mod­er­a­tors who don’t want to lose their jobs, they’re go­ing to flag it.”

The flag­ging sys­tem is only the start of the pa­rade of new is­sues for gun video cre­ators and the chan­nels they run.

The real prob­lem is what hap­pens next. If a flagged video is con­firmed as vi­o­lat­ing the YouTube pol­icy, the chan­nel it’s posted by is given a “strike,” which sits on the ac­count for 90 days. If a chan­nel gets two strikes in that pe­riod, they’re blocked for post­ing any­thing new for two weeks.

Three strikes, and “your ac­count will be ter­mi­nated,” Google warns.

That means all of the chan­nel’s videos and con­tent are deleted, cre­ators said. And while strikes can be ap­pealed, there’s no prom­ise as to how quickly those ap­peals will be pro­cessed.

THE MONEY GAME

Some con­tent pro­duc­ers al­ready know the burn of a chan­nel can­cel­la­tion all too well.

Take James Yea­ger, for ex­am­ple.

His chan­nel, run un­der his name, had 336,000 sub­scribers but was killed by YouTube last fall af­ter re­ceiv­ing three strikes. He then started a sec­ond chan­nel, Tac­ti­cal Re­sponse, which YouTube has al­lowed him to keep.

The dele­tion of his orig­i­nal chan­nel did more than just elim­i­nate his hard work and a pa­rade of a mil­lion views per month. He said it hurt his bot­tom line. That’s be­cause, like many con­tent pro­duc­ers, Yea­ger wasn’t just run­ning his chan­nel for the hell of it; he was us­ing it to earn money.

Google’s AdSense sys­tem pays pro­duc­ers based on view­er­ship but re­quires that videos and the text posted with them abide by a set of stan­dards. Ex­panded last sum­mer, those stan­dards rule out a va­ri­ety of gun or “vi­o­lent” con­tent, in­clud­ing “pages that drive traf­fic to firearm sales,” the rule that has now been ex­panded to the YouTube pol­icy.

It was thanks to that change that chan­nels like the Mil­i­tary Arms Chan­nel went from mak­ing what Harm­sen called “good money,” to hav­ing their ad rev­enue cut by as much as 90 per­cent.

AdSense isn’t the only way us­ing YouTube can pay. Con­tent pro­duc­ers also make money through spon­sor­ships, paid re­views, or links back to ad­ver­tis­ers placed in the video de­scrip­tion, all made prob­lem­atic by any rule against pro­mot­ing sales.

But more than any­thing else, the AdSense changes forced video pro­duc­ers to start fund­ing their chan­nels through crowd-fund­ing sites like Pa­treon, which mar­shals pledges and cash sup­port from fans. Us­ing that sys­tem en­sures they aren’t re­ly­ing on the whims of YouTube or its moder­a­tor team to guar­an­tee pay­days.

That sup­port from view­ers like you, they said, keeps them pro­duc­ing and means YouTube doesn’t have to be the boss of what they can and can­not do.

… Sort of.

FIND­ING SAFE HAVEN

YouTube’s site isn’t the be-all and end-all of gun video host­ing. RECOILtv and Full30.com, among oth­ers, of­fer con­tent space.

But YouTube is the big­gest, which is why the an­nounce­ment sparked a wave of worry from pro­duc­ers over the big­ger ques­tion re­gard­ing their videos: If YouTube kicks them out, who will take them in?

Part of the an­swer for one chan­nel, InRange TV, is the porn in­dus­try. In the wake of YouTube’s an­nounce­ment, InRange founders Ian McCol­lum and Karl Kasarda an­nounced that they’d had enough of YouTube’s power plays and would hap­pily be­gin up­load­ing their videos to a site that has no prob­lem pro­tect­ing free­dom of speech: PornHub.

With plenty of server ca­pac­ity and no chance that their videos will be con­sid­ered too edgy, McCol­lum said, the pair’s de­ci­sion to uti­lize PornHub in ad­di­tion to a va­ri­ety of other sites, in­clud­ing Full30 and Face­book, makes sense.

But what PornHub doesn’t of­fer InRange and the oth­ers who have since joined them there is a guar­an­teed path to the almighty dol­lar. Many firearms or firearms ac­ces­sory ad­ver­tis­ers likely won’t ap­pre­ci­ate PornHub’s NSFW qual­i­ties, the other ads that’ll pop­u­late next to their prod­ucts, or the idea of fur­ther ty­ing the two in­dus­tries, pro­duc­ers wor­ried.

That’s why many con­tent brands and in­dus­try in­sid­ers are look­ing for a more fam­ily friendly home than PornHub can sup­ply. And there are plenty to choose from. Since the YouTube an­nounce­ment, a flurry of hosts have cropped up, in­clud­ing Utah Gun Ex­change and GunStreamer.com, join­ing al­ready es­tab­lished plat­forms like Full30 and RECOILtv; the lat­ter is cur­rently open­ing up its video plat­form to me­dia part­ners.

But start­ing a video host­ing site isn’t as sim­ple as it sounds, said Harm­sen, who co­founded Full30. The re­cently launched plat­forms don’t yet sup­port ad­ver­tis­ing, and run­ning servers and tech­ni­cal sup­port for video host­ing is ex­pen­sive — a truth that has kept Full30 from ex­pand­ing con­sis­tently since its 2014 found­ing. He said his site cur­rently has over 1,000 pro­duc­ers lined up look­ing for space that he can’t yet of­fer thanks to those chal­lenges.

“The band­width costs alone are phe­nom­e­nal,” he said. “Full30 has ev­ery in­ten­tion of be­ing that lifeboat when we are sure the in­fra­struc­ture can han­dle the load.”

He said he thinks the new plat­forms won’t last, if only be­cause they’ll run out of the money needed to stay in op­er­a­tion.

THE BIG­GER QUES­TIONS

While the YouTube change has left pro­duc­ers scram­bling over prac­ti­cal prob­lems like where to host their videos, it has also raised loftier ques­tions that both in­dus­try in­sid­ers and video pro­duc­ers say will ne­ces­si­tate long game think­ing.

They start with free­dom of speech and flow quickly to the Sec­ond Amend­ment bat­tle with which firearms en­thu­si­asts have be­come all too fa­mil­iar.

At what point, pro­duc­ers have asked, does a pri­vately owned com­pany be­come a part of the pub­lic in­ter­est? Should it be OK for YouTube to ban videos of le­gal firearms ac­tiv­i­ties and prod­ucts while still pop­u­lat­ing bomb mak­ing videos and vi­o­lent video game con­tent? And does YouTube have to an­swer for what many see as the hyp­o­crit­i­cal stan­dard of al­low­ing some types of po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous con­tent, while ban­ning oth­ers?

YouTube, said McCol­lum, al­lows

“all man­ner of il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity” to be dis­played on the site, but still has plans to re­move large num­bers of com­pletely le­gal firearms videos.

“YouTube is ba­si­cally the big­gest li­brary in his­tory. They ex­ist as a dig­i­tal con­tent provider and at least, to me, I think that’s their role,” McCol­lum said. “On a much grander scale, do we, as a so­ci­ety, re­ally want YouTube to de­cide which speech is go­ing to be free?”

InRange TV founders

Ian McCol­lum, left, and Karl Kasarda talk to their YouTube au­di­ence about changes

in their fund­ing model, ask­ing them to sup­port them us­ing

Pa­treon.com.

Jon Pat­ton talks in a

video posted to his YouTube chan­nel, The Gun Col­lec­tive, about his give­away hosted on an­other site. YouTube’s new gun pol­icy could be in­ter­preted to block even that kind

of con­tent.

Tim Harm­sen demon­strates use of a YHM Turbo 5.56 Si­lencer in this still from a video on his Mil­i­tary Arms Chan­nel on YouTube. Un­der their new gun pol­icy videos like this could be banned.

James Yea­ger dis­cusses his goals for 2018 in a still from a YouTube video posted to his chan­nel. He re­cently launched his own video plat­form in an at­tempt to flee the site’s new re­stric­tions.

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