Google Frustration and The Curious Case of the YouTube Bots
YouTube has a problem with Bots. Dozens of YouTube creators have recently been accused by YouTube of artificially inflating their views count by using Bots. Although Bots inflation is a very real problem on YouTube, none of these users or their agents used Bots. And when these users appealed their wrongful takedowns they were greeted with an auto reply email that blamed them as opposed to offering any meaningful evidence of Bots or any ways the creators could protect themselves from having others use Bots to inflate the views on their accounts.
This isn’t a new story. Last January, we brought you the story of Fortress of Attitude who had their song “PS Gay Car” removed after it was misflagged for violating “TOU #4 Section H”, that is: using Bots or other automated means to inflate a YouTube video’s view count. Despite outreach to YouTube, that case was never resolved and the good folks at Fortress of Attitude ended up reposting their video. When we went public with the incident, we thought it was an isolated one. But then we started hearing the stories of other YouTubers, that made us realize Fortress of Attitude’s case is not unique after all.
YouTube Bots Redux
It started last August; a musician came to us with a strange issue. One of her videos had been removed from YouTube with no notice or email from YouTube whatsoever. There were no strikes on her account nor was there any apparent way to appeal the takedown. Soon after, in September, the same thing happened to three more musicians who had videos on YouTube. Around the same time, we received several YouTube Bots related takedowns, just like Fortress of Attitude’s case. And we wondered if these two types of takedowns we’re related. Almost all of the video creators had exhausted the available appeals process by the time they got to us, and we encouraged those who had not to appeal, but none were successful. Since we were concerned about the increasing number of unexplainable takedowns, and lack of the ability to appeal, we approached YouTube with our concerns.
When we reached out to YouTube we were actually quite optimistic. We came prepared with a detailed Google Doc spreadsheet with every relevant piece of information related to the problem we could think of. We included real names; user names; the name of the affected video; a link to the affected video; if the user received notice; if the dispute resolution process was available; how the takedown was reported in the users account; any unique facts about the artist takedown and the approximate number of views the video received. We also asked YouTube if they needed any additional information to look into the problem, but YouTube said they did not.
After we received that new appeals form we helped many of the individuals who contacted us with their appeals. All of those appeals, including some we didn’t help with, had one thing in common. None of the appeals resulted in any of the videos being restored, even when direct evidence was available showing that the individual hadn’t used Bots.
We continued our conversation with YouTube to see if maybe there was something wrong with the content of the appeals. Maybe there was specific evidence that they needed? Maybe we had missed a procedural step? Unfortunately, YouTube was unable to provide us with any details on what kind of evidence they were looking for in an appeal, or even if appeals were ever granted. The only thing they were able to provide us with were the links to every public explanatory page about their policy. In case you’re curious here are those links:
Recently, YouTube stopped replying to our emails about the Bots issue. As of February 5, 2014 none of the videos that we’ve tried to get restored have been restored. We’re unaware of any Bots videos that have been restored after using the appeals process.
The Face Of Bots
So who exactly are these individuals whose videos have been taken down?
The Inspirational Song Writer
Ryan John contacted us in November when his video, Faith in You, was taken down. The Faith in You video was based on watching one of his friends struggle to recover from open heart surgery. After receiving over seven thousand views, the videos view count paused and was taken down a few days later. Numerous heart health charities had reached out to Ryan about the video and Ryan worried that seeing YouTube’s notification that “This video has been removed because its content violated YouTube’s Terms of service” would scare them off from the video. Ryan was especially confused since he didn’t market his channel other than sharing videos on Twitter and Facebook. When Ryan appealed, his appeal was rejected and he has since re-uploaded the video. He has also blogged about his experience here.
The Law Student Podcaster
Anthony Iliakostas is a third year law student at New York Law School. He has hosted a sports law podcast since 2011 called Law and Batting Order. Since the podcasts inception he has received about 20,000 views total on YouTube. On Sunday, November 10th, he uploaded the second installment of #TheHuddle, the roundtable discussion portion of his show. The first installment garnered 8,000 views and Anthony was pleased that the second installment received 5,000 views in the first two days. He was less pleased on the third day when YouTube removed his second installment for a violation of Section H, but not his first installment. YouTube had accused him of using Bots on the less successful of the two videos, which seemed particularly absurd. When Anthony tried to appeal, his email and formal appeals were rejected.
The International Pop Star and the $5 Takedown
Rajeev Nandakumaran, known to his fans as Jeevo, contacted us in October when his video, Jump (Champagne Problems) was taken down. His video had a spike in views which he initially tied to his recent international touring. However, when he sent out a letter to his fans asking if anyone had done anything that might have caused his video to be taken down, an 18 year old fan from Sri Lanka reached out and mentioned that he had in fact paid for views on YouTube through a site called Fivver. On Fivver you can pay individuals to do a variety of things for five dollars, including buying views on YouTube. To buy views on Fivver, a user only needs $5.00 and the publicly available video URL. The sad thing in this case was the fan genuinely thought he was helping one of his favorite artists and not putting that artist’s YouTube account in jeopardy. Rajeeve’s video has not been restored even after repeated follow-up emails with YouTube specifically about his case.
YouTube is of course a private website, and it has a great deal of freedom to decide how to run its site. There’s no doubt that Bots are a difficult problem to deal with for the service. However, there are a few key problems that YouTube needs to fix in its response to Bots:
Some users are not receiving any actual notice as to why their videos are being taken down.
One of the reasons it took us several months for this problem to materialize was that many of the initial cases had received no email notifications from YouTube at all. Many of those creators in the first cases just logged into their YouTube accounts one day and discovered that their video had been removed. Worse still was that in the dashboard itself, next to the video, creators saw a variety of incorrect reasons in parentheses about why the video was taken down, everything from “copyright”, to “community guidelines” , to “video copied”. Worse still, in these cases the usual appeals button was conspicuously absent. Not only did users have no idea why their videos were taken down, they also had no way to fix it.
The appeals process is not user friendly and presumes the user is guilty.
Even for those creators who did receive notice from YouTube as to why their video had been taken down, the appeals process was not user friendly. The first issue is the appeal form itself. It just isn’t written for everyday users. We’d like to take a moment to point out a few of the more problematic statements within the form.
“Please treat this as a form of discovery and provide thorough responses. Err on the side of abundance when answering these questions, the more information the better. We cannot help you to restore your account unless we have all of your data related to this matter.”
This is the introduction to the form. First off, we’re a bit dismayed over the use of the word “discovery”. In this context, discovery is a legal term that describes the point in litigation where two parties exchange information as specified by law and as moderated by the court. YouTube’s appeals process is not bound by the law in any way. But more importantly, we think the call to “err on the side of abundance” is a particularly absurd instruction. The maximum character count is 1,000 characters, or about 180 words. It’s very difficult to completely answer many of the questions asked in 180 words. We understand that YouTube receives lots of these requests every day, but if the appeals process is to be meaningful, YouTube needs to allow its users enough room to “Err on the side of abundance”.
The form also presumes that the creator is guilty of Bots inflation. After asking if the creator used Bots, even if the user answers “no”, the form follows up with the following required question: “From whom did you purchase traffic?” Leaving the user to state once again that they did not use Bots. This is just one of four questions that demand an answer even after the user denies their usage of Bots. While as lawyers we respect that this is how you would write a good interrogatory for discovery, it’s just not a good way to ask questions of a lay person outside of a litigation context.
Despite our attempts to assist many of the individuals whose innocence we personally verified by helping them craft their appeal, every single appeal that we’ve observed is followed by the same exact form email rejecting the appeal. It is unclear if anyone has ever succeeded in a Bots inflation appeal. If it is YouTube’s policy to never overturn a Bots takedown, then users should be informed of this and not have their time wasted.
The expectation YouTube has for users are unfair and unrealistic.
One of the most troubling parts of this whole process is that YouTube blames its users for the problem without giving them the tools to prevent it. Here is part of the email a user receives when their appeal is rejected:
“Ultimately, you are responsible for knowing and abiding by our terms – this means understanding the nature of the traffic on your channel and making sure you are in compliance with our terms. Ignorance of bad traffic or other actions taken on your behalf may lead to your account being removed from YouTube.”
In our conversations with YouTube we asked multiple times if there was any way for a YouTube creator to block or delete potentially fraudulent views on their channel. We were never pointed to any tool that would help a creator to do that nor were we able to find any tool on YouTube in our own search. Even if a YouTube creator knows where the Bots came from (whether from a misguided fan or someone intentionally trying to censor their account through Bots inflation, as was the case with a few of the users we assisted) there is no way to stop the views and no way to reduce the views to account for any Bots. If the user doesn’t know where the Bots came from or if there was a glitch in YouTube’s system, the user is still held responsible for events entirely out of their control. And remember, getting a video removed for Bots is incredibly easy to do. Even if the penalties weren’t so high (multiple Section H Bots claims can mean account termination) it seems absurd to hold users accountable for actions outside of their control.
The potential for Bots being used as a tool for censorship.
For a long time, the DMCA takedown notice has been used as a censorship tool. However, the DMCA counternotice process is far more functional on YouTube than the Bots appeals process, and at least in theory, there can be real life legal consequences for abusing the DMCA. But the thing about Bots attacks is they are very difficult to track and link to one individual. This makes them a very powerful tool for those wanting to get a certain video taken down for a limited period of time. While we haven’t seen a case like this yet, it would be relatively easy for a politician who wanted to bury a YouTube attack ad to pay someone on Fivver or another service to inflate the views in order to get the video taken down. No approval or access to a YouTube account is required to inflate views, only the publicly available URL.
YouTube is doing nothing to help.
When we went to YouTube we were very optimistic that YouTube would be willing to help, or at the very least acknowledge the problem. However, none of YouTube’s public facing materials or the YouTube employees we spoke to acknowledge the potential for Bots abuse, or the need for improvement of the appeals process. As a result there are no tools that users can use to protect themselves from these attacks.
What happened to the public square?
As frustrating as this is for the users who have had their videos unfairly removed from YouTube, the reality is that YouTube has no obligation whatsoever to correct the problem without pressure from its users. They are a private company and can generally run the site however they wish.
“But what about my first amendment rights!?!?” you might ask. Well, the first amendment only applies to actions taken by the government to restrict speech. Since YouTube is not the government, they can actually allow or disallow any content they see fit.
This illustrates one of the questions of the digital age. In the real world there are certain public spaces (public parks, state universities, sidewalks etc) where you can voice your opinion pretty much freely. However, most major content platforms on the internet are run by private companies. Because private companies are not subject to the first amendment; as much as we think of sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook as a “public” space for sharing, they technically are not. They are private spaces subject to the rules of whatever company runs them. As life moves increasingly online, we must ask if there is a digital replacement to those public sidewalks or parks for free speech.
So, can we do anything?!?
YouTube is a private company and they can legally continue doing all of the activities outlined in this article even though they are extremely problematic. So what’s a YouTuber to do? The only way to get YouTube to change their practices is to get user and YouTube creators to demand a more transparent process. To demand that the appeals process be written for you, and not a bunch of lawyers. To demand that if YouTube makes users responsible for monitoring their own traffic, that YouTube creates tools to help you block bad traffic. While YouTube doesn’t have to listen, it’s simply good business to keep your customers happy, especially when your profits are based on the creative works of your users.