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On Censorship, Free Speech, and Algorithms

Jun 1, 2020 • 3 min read
How a mistaken premise can lead to a false dichotomy.

Last week I wrote about why we built Utreon, and the problem we were trying to fix. Content creators have been wishing for a legitimate challenger to YouTube for years, and while a couple have popped-up, none of them escape a fatal premise: they take "censorship" to be the problem, and then turn to "free speech" as the solution.

It's common to see claims that YouTube has a political bias, and censors content and creators that go against said bias. It's certainly true that both YouTube as a culture, and its individual decision-makers have biases – everyone does.

That said, the simple fact of the matter is that YouTube's algorithms are tuned towards being brand-safe, both for YouTube and it's advertisers. In (admittedly) over-simplified terms: this means that the algorithm is biased against anything isn't "politically correct".

In the end, this is the fundamental choice being made by YouTube. In fact, it is likely not being made by YouTube itself, but rather Google. Most of Google's business is advertisements, and so maintaining relations with advertisers and control of that market is far more important to it than anything happening at YouTube.

The mechanism isn't biased as such, but the outcomes are. The fundamental flaw is YouTube's subordination to Google's greater interests, and the company's use of algorithms as the solution to everything. Censorship isn't the key issue. This explains why YouTube doesn't perceive itself as being biased or engaged in censorship, and why they are unlikely to ever address the root issue. You could expect that they would sooner scuttle ship than rework the foundations of the company.

The few challengers to YouTube that have sprung-up so far have no chance at broad-appeal, and thus legitimacy, because they fundamentally misidentify the problem they're solving as censorship. They therefore conclude that the answer is the opposite of censorship: freedom-of-speech. This is an answer to the wrong problem.

Note that this entirely side-steps the typical point of YouTube being a private company and not the government, and therefore not technically engaged in censorship since there is no expectation of free speech. While this is (technically) true, it is irrelevant because it is merely word-thinking. It doesn't matter what any of these things are called – but I digress.

The solution lies in letting viewers control the algorithm that determines what they see. That requires having better information (meta-data) on content. Utreon is built around ensuring this. Better meta-data in turn lets advertisers make informed decisions about the content they want their brand juxtaposed with. By avoiding having content decisions governed by unknown and secret algorithms, the entire system is perceived as more credible. We have rules and standards, and they are applied evenly.

This is the real solution that was being overshadowed by the false choice of censorship versus freedom of speech all along.