Does Google profit off of illegal YouTube videos?

Nebraska and Oklahoma attorneys general blast Google for monetizing videos showing illegal activity

Financial trends and news by Steven Loeb
July 3, 2013
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Google is coming under heavy fire after being accused by two state attorneys general of profiting off of YouTube videos that contain illegal activity.

The issue of what responsibility GooAttgle has for the content of videos posted to YouTube has been contested before, and Google has been found to be not accountable for the what actually appears in those videos. I'm sure not everyone agrees with that, but from my point of view is does not seem reasonable to expect Google to be on top of every uploaded video.

There is one thing that I think everyone should agree on, though: even if Google cannot be held responsible for what appears in the videos on the site, the company should not be running ads on them in order to make a profit. That seems very, very clear to me. And, it turns out, it is also pretty clear to two attorney generals who are now accusing Google of doing just that.

In a letter sent from Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to Ken Walker, Google's Senior Vice President and General Councel, the two AGs asked him to clarify Google's position on the matter and how much money it makes on videos show illegal activity. 

"As we understand the process, video producers are asked prior to posting whether they will allow YouTube to host advertising with the video and, for those who consent, the advertising revenue is shared between the producer and Google," Bruning and Pruitt write. "While this practice itself is not troubling, we were disappointed to learn that many such monetized videos posted to YouTube depict or even promote dangerous or illegal activities," Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt wrote in the letter, dated July 3rd.

Bruning and Pruitt even cited some specific example of videos that they say Google puts ads on that show illegal activity, including one that promotes the sale of oxycontin, one with a how-to guide for creating fake drivers licenses, and another that promotes the sale of counterfeit merchandise.

All of these videos, they said, have been monetized by Google.

"Not only are the activities depicted or promoted in the above-described videos illegal in and of themselves, but in the case of document forgery, the how-to guide could be instrumental in the commission of other crimes ranging from under-age drinking to acts of terrorism," the two AGs wrote.

The two attorneys general ended the letter by asking Google to provide the number of videos removed between January 2011 and June 2013, and then to tell them how many of those videos had advertisements running on them.

They also want Google to explain how it has avoided hosting paid ads on videos with illegal content, and what steps it has taken to remove that advertising.

YouTube, for its part, says that it is doing all it can to monitor these types of videos, and to prevent ads from appearing on them.

“We take user safety seriously and have Community Guidelines that prohibit any content encouraging dangerous, illegal activities. This includes content promoting the sale of drugs. YouTube's review teams respond to videos flagged for our attention around the clock, removing any content that violates our policies. We also have stringent advertising guidelines, and work to prevent ads appearing against any video, channel or page once we determine that the content is not appropriate for our advertising partners," a YouTube spokesperson told VatorNews.

The spokesperson also directed me to a blog post from June, in which Google outlined how it was attempting to "combat rogue online pharmacies" that attempted to advertise on YouTube videos.

It should be made clear that nobody is accusing Google of being responsible for the content of what appears in videos uploaded to YouTube. Even Bruning and Pruitt made it clear that they were not suggesting that Google be held responsible for every video on the site, acknowledging that YouTube "is an open platform and that not all content can or should be policed."

Others have tried to make the claim in the past, and have failed.

For example, in April 2012, a German court sided with copyright organization GEMA in a suit over 12 music videos that had been uploaded to YouTube that contained copyrighted material. 

Google was ordered to provide better safeguards, but when GEMA requested that Google go through all of its content to purge the website of copyrighted material, the court denied the request, as they found that it was the users, not YouTube, who were not violating copyright laws.

While I think that most people would find it reasonable for YouTube to be self policing to some extent, its one thing not to be responsible for the content of a video; profiting off of those same videos, though, crosses a line.

"The fact that Google actively seeks to profit from the posting of these types of videos on YouTube - a website known to be particularly popular among children and teens - is very troubling," said Bruning and Pruitt. 

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