Blog: YouTube’s demonetisation of Russell Brand highlights a free speech problem

Blog: YouTube’s demonetisation of Russell Brand highlights a free speech problem - Digital

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By Chantal Joris, Legal Officer 

The recent and disturbing allegations of rape, sexual assault, and emotional abuse against British comedian and actor Russell Brand have ignited fervent discussions about the age of consent, misogyny, workplace sexism and the complicit role of the media. 

Beyond these critical discussions, the case also highlights the question of how the capacity to earn revenue for online content creators can impact freedom of expression. 

Following the investigation by Channel 4, the Sunday Times and the Times, YouTube swiftly moved to demonetise Russell Brand’s channel, stripping him of the ability to earn income on the platform. To be clear, there are certainly more pressing human rights issues than the suspension of one income stream for a millionaire, particularly in light of serious and credible accusations of sexual crimes.

However, the demonetisation practices of YouTube and other platforms can be deeply problematic for many voices far less powerful than that of Russell Brand.

YouTube contends that it is taking action against Brand on the basis that he is violating its ‘creator responsibility policy’. This policy, in essence, allows YouTube to demonetise a channel based on a creator’s behaviour outside the platform, ostensibly “in order to protect the community”. But should YouTube have the authority to demonetise a channel for reasons entirely disconnected from the content it publishes? Should Google, YouTube’s parent company, have to agree with the content creator’s off-platform actions? The restriction of speech based on who the speaker is – rather than what they say – is a slippery slope that can easily be exploited to silence dissenting voices.

But is it really censorship if a channel is not outright banned from a platform but only stripped of the ability to make money from it? The reality is that, through YouTube, Google controls most of the world’s public video content. YouTube’s role in levelling the playing field, granting independent thinkers, artists, and creators access to global audiences, cannot be overstated. Central to this democratisation of discourse is also YouTube’s long-standing practice of sharing advertising revenue with content creators which has fostered public discourse, political activism and independent political commentators. It has made it financially viable to become an independent media creator.

Yet, the content creators’ reliance on YouTube for their revenue in itself can raise issues of free speech. The eligibility of monetisation hinges on the classification of content as “advertiser friendly”, a categorisation that can significantly influence editorial choices. For example, YouTube stipulates that “content discussing terrorism or sensitive current events like war, death, or tragedy” is inherently “unsafe” and subject to demonetisation. This can incentivise independent journalists to steer clear of many political topics and shift towards lighter, more advertiser-friendly ones.

Compounding the matter, the determinations of what is “advertiser friendly content” are often made by algorithms accused of bias and unfair treatment, particularly of content addressing serious news and matters pertinent to marginalised groups, such as LGBTQIA+ issues.

For example, a recent study found that 33% of video titles containing queer-related terms were initially demonetised. These videos were only able to generate income after creators replaced those words with more neutral terms like “friend” and “happy”.

The power wielded by platforms like YouTube to withdraw content creators’ revenue thus poses a systematic threat to the resources and visibility – not of those who already possess a huge platform but of marginalised creators and those who discuss non-mainstream or contro­versial perspectives that are not to the liking of powerful brands.

While platforms claim to follow a rules-based system, their decisions frequently remind us that they are ultimately private companies whose responses are often more attuned to political pressures and advertisers’ concerns for their brand safety at the expense of free speech and the quality and diversity in public discourse for all.