A group of LGBT video creators is accusing YouTube of discriminating by suppressing its content, restricting its ability to sell advertising and culling its subscribers, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday evening against the video site and its parent, Google.
The suit adds to allegations against the video streaming site - by far the world's largest, with nearly 2 billion monthly viewers - that it enforces its policies unevenly and gives a pass to producers with large audiences, even when their content is hostile to gay, lesbian or other communities.
The discrimination alleged in the lawsuit is "embedded in the business model" of YouTube, said Peter Obstler, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs and a partner at law firm Browne George Ross, in an interview Tuesday evening. "By controlling an estimated 95% of the public video communications that occur in the world, Google and YouTube wield unparalleled power and unfettered discretion to apply viewpoint-based content policies in a way that permits them to pick winners and losers."
The suit by five LGBT creators, filed in federal court in San Jose, says YouTube deploys "unlawful content regulation, distribution, and monetization practices that stigmatize, restrict, block, demonetize, and financially harm the LGBT Plaintiffs and the greater LGBT Community."
"Our policies have no notion of sexual orientation or gender identity and our systems do not restrict or demonetize videos based on these factors or the inclusion of terms like 'gay' or 'transgender,' " said YouTube spokesman Alex Joseph, in an emailed statement. He added that YouTube quickly removes content deemed to include hate speech and terminates accounts that repeatedly run afoul of its policies.
As the leading video platform, YouTube wields tremendous power to make or break creators, who have few other options to turn to. It can pull levers to promote content it favors or to bury videos it seems less desirable. And because the software running YouTube is kept secret, creators are often left guessing when their content is suppressed.
The LGBT creators allege YouTube's software algorithms, as well as its human reviewers, single out and remove content that features words common in the LGBT community, such as "gay," "lesbian" or "bisexual" and has caused them to lose advertising revenue.
One of the lawsuit's allegations, that YouTube has a near monopoly over video content online, wades into a debate heating up in Washington. Antitrust regulators are reviewing whether Google and other tech companies have amassed too much power. The lawsuit alleges that it has.
According to the suit, Google "used their monopoly power over content regulation to selectively apply their rules and restrictions in a manner that allowed them to gain an unfair advantage to profit from their own content to the detriment of its consumers."
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that moderators for YouTube are trained to treat the most popular video producers differently than others by, for instance, allowing hateful speech to remain on the site while enforcing their policies more stringently against creators with fewer followers. YouTube denied the claims.
YouTube was buffeted by allegations in June that it failed to act against a popular video creator who repeatedly mocked a journalist for being openly gay and of Mexican descent.
Bria Kam and Chrissy Chambers, whose BriaAndChrissy channel has about 850,000 subscribers, allege that YouTube's enforcement against their channel reduced their monthly revenue to around $500 from $3,500.
However, according to the lawsuit, YouTube routinely restricts content that is allowable by, among other things, labeling videos aimed at LGBT communities for restricted audiences only or altering thumbnail previews of the videos that serve as enticements for potential viewers.
The lawsuit mentions a BriaAndChrissy music video titled "Face Your Fears," which features the couple standing in front of anti-gay protesters, kissing. The song lyrics encourage people in the LGBT community to be themselves. "No more hate, no more shame," the song goes. For reasons that are unclear to the creators, the video has been placed in "restricted mode," making it invisible to viewers at many schools, libraries or to anyone who has activated the mode meant to limit offensive content.
The couple say these restrictions have "stigmatized" their videos and limited their audience, causing their earnings to dwindle. The lawsuit also says YouTube has allowed anti-gay groups to place obscene advertisements before the BriaAndChrissy videos.
Bret Somers, whose Watts the Safeword channel has about 200,000 subscribers, claims in the suit that his average monthly sales of $6,500 fell to around $300 as a result of YouTube's actions against him, including restricting most of his videos to small audiences. Somers, in the suit, said that videos such as those describing his experience traveling to events, festivals or conventions do not appear for many viewers. His channel also depicts more adult content such as people watching virtual reality pornography and discussion of sex toys.
Lindsay Amer, another plaintiff and the creator of "Queer Kid Stuff," says the channel's videos, meant for kids aged 3 to 17, initially gained traction. But after a neo-Nazi website accused her of encouraging homosexuality, the comments sections underneath the videos were bombarded with hate speech that referred to Amer as a pedophile and attacked the LGBT community. Amer says parents wrote in to say that while they supported the content of Amer's videos, they would not allow their children to watch them because of the comments.
YouTube would not filter or allow Amer to filter out hate-filled comments, so eventually Amer turned off comments entirely. But that limited the online personality's ability to grow an audience, the lawsuit alleges, because the comments section is a growth driver on YouTube.
Even after the comments were turned off, anti-gay YouTube personalities continued to take portions of Amer's videos and edit over them with mocking hate speech. YouTube refused to prevent those videos from being uploaded, the lawsuit alleges.
In addition to the harassment, the Queer Kids Stuff videos were also restricted by YouTube's algorithms, the lawsuit alleges, with some videos being blocked altogether. The audience for the videos has remained at around 15,000 and generates less than $500 per year.
The lawsuit points out that videos produced by YouTube itself, a growing effort at the company, are allowed to shut off the comments feature while still earning advertising revenue.
The suit is seeking class action status. The firm, Browne George Ross, is involved in another ongoing lawsuit against YouTube in which nonprofit Prager University alleges the Silicon Valley company removed or restricted its educational videos because they have a conservative political bent.
This article was written by Greg Bensinger, Reed Albergotti, reporters for The Washington Post.