A group of Black content creators has filed a proposed class action lawsuit this week against Google LLC, YouTube LLC and Alphabet Inc. over what they claim is “overt, intentional, and systematic racial discrimination” against the Black community.
According to the lawsuit out of California federal court, the defendants use their “absolute control” over YouTube users’ posting, viewing, engagement, advertising, personal data, and revenue monetization to place unlawful restrictions on certain content creators despite purporting to maintain an “equal access” policy that applies “viewpoint neutral content rules and criteria” to all videos.
Meanwhile, the defendants allegedly exclude their own material from access restrictions even when the content violates the platform’s Terms of Service (TOS), thereby allowing the companies to reap substantial profits.
The lawsuit claims the defendants’ “intentional and systematic racial discrimination” not only violates the terms of their contracts but oversteps federal and state antidiscrimination, false advertising, unlawful business practices, and free speech laws.
“In short,” the complaint states, “Defendants’ use of racism for profit is every bit unlawful as ideological racism, since, in either case, it discriminates against Plaintiffs because they are African Americans or members of other protected racial classifications under the law.”
With Great Power Comes Great Conflict of Interest, Lawsuit Alleges
The 239-page lawsuit paints a picture of the defendants as members of the “largest business enterprise . . . in the world,” with “absolute control” over roughly 95 percent of all video content available to the public. At the center of the suit is YouTube, Google’s online video platform used by a staggering 2.3 billion consumers.
The case claims the defendants shuffle between three “conflicting and irreconcilable roles” in connection with YouTube that allow them to boost their own interests while unfairly targeting competition. On the one hand, the suit explains, the defendants act as an internet service provider with the right to “host, review, curate, and monetize” video content posted by third-party users in exchange for access to YouTube’s content and services. Decisions regarding access to video content are purportedly based on “viewpoint neutral rules that apply equally to all,” the lawsuit states.
On the other hand, the suit poses, the defendants also partner with hand-picked content creators and, “as the largest and most powerful of YouTube users,” compete directly with those who utilize the platform for views, reach, engagement, CPM (clicks-per-minute) revenue, advertisers, and “a host of other user based revenue streams” on YouTube.
Thirdly, the defendants act as advertisers, responsible for reviewing, categorizing and classifying videos for the purpose of selling advertising on the YouTube platform, the lawsuit says. Advertising decisions are based on metadata comprised of demographic information (gleaned from video titles and tags), channel profiles, subscriber and viewer profiles, and subscriber and viewer viewing history, the case explains.
Using this “enormous wealth of information,” the defendants can choose to sell advertising based on certain users’ race, identity and viewpoints, the suit argues, and thereby generate revenue for the defendants, their affiliated content creators, and “affluent white YouTube creators,” without having to actually view the millions of hours of video content posted to the platform.
“In short,” the case says, “Defendants divvy up the video content on the platform by race, identity and viewpoint in order to sell advertisements to third parties without regard to the actual content of videos; moreover, Defendants fully monetize those creators whose subscribers and viewers fit the ‘right demographic,’ paying them collectively millions of dollars each month regardless of whether their individual videos comply with Defendants’ own Community Guidelines and TOS.”
According to the case, the power wielded by YouTube, Google and Alphabet through their conflicting roles allows the defendants to, under the guise of keeping the site safe for users, “arbitrarily, capriciously, and deceptively” restrict access to their competitors’ content while promoting unfettered access to their own content regardless of whether it violates the site’s own guidelines.
Defendants’ ‘Tool Kit for Unlawful Conduct’
According to the lawsuit, the defendants utilize a set of “discriminatory, anticompetitive and unlawful suppression practices” to censor and restrict content posted by the plaintiffs and other content creators.
Referred to in the complaint as the defendants’ “tool kit for unlawful conduct,” the case claims the companies have:
Used artificial intelligence-based algorithms to “surreptitiously” collect information about YouTube users and generate metadata that is “embedded, appended or associated” with individual videos in order to allow the defendants to filter, review, restrict or block content based on discriminatory factors;
Excluded Black content creators from “full revenue generation” merely because the metadata indicates that the video contains references to terms such as “BLM,” “Black,” “White,” “Racism,” “Racial Profiling,” “Police Shootings,” “Police Brutality,” “Black Lives Matter,” the names of individuals killed by law enforcement, and other terms or euphemisms “known and particular” to the Black community;
Wrongfully flagged some videos as unavailable when YouTube users have activated the site’s “Restricted Mode,” even though the videos do not include content “(1) talking about drug use or abuse, or drinking alcohol in videos; (2) overly detailed conversations about or depictions of sex or sexual activity; (3) graphic descriptions of violence, violent acts, natural disasters and tragedies, or even violence in the news; (4) videos that cover specific details about events related to terrorism, war, crime, and political conflicts that resulted in death or serious injury, even if no graphic imagery is shown; (5) inappropriate language, including profanity; and (6) video content that is gratuitously incendiary, inflammatory, or demeaning towards an individual or group”;
Designated videos that discuss serious issues or current events important to the Black community as “not family friendly” and excluded them from YouTube’s search function, rendering them essentially “invisible” to those using the platform;
Allowed any user, including “racists, sexists, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and other hate speech trolls,” to “report” or “flag” videos believed to violate YouTube’s Terms of Service without verifying the supposed violation;
Interfered with the plaintiffs’ and others’ Livestream broadcasts by stopping the broadcast; intentionally slowing broadcasting speeds; inserting content into the video that is “entirely unrelated” and often “offensive, misogynistic, racist, or obscene”; removing viewers’ positive comments; and disconnecting individual viewers who are in the process of leaving positive comments;
Excluded videos posted by the plaintiffs from YouTube’s “Up Next” and “Trending” recommendations on users’ screens;
Froze the number of subscribers, number of viewers, and view times—metrics used by the defendants to determine monetization and other perks—on the “Analytics” pages for the plaintiffs’ channels;
Promoted and monetized videos including hate speech against the plaintiffs and the Black community even after the plaintiffs and their subscribers flagged such videos; and
Ignored or delayed appeals by the plaintiffs to restore monetization to a video or lift restrictions.
The end result of the defendants’ alleged actions, according to the lawsuit, is that the plaintiffs and other marginalized content creators have lost subscribers, viewership and revenue while being unable to freely discuss topics and issues that are important to members of their communities.
Of particular note in the case is another lawsuit filed in August 2019 by a group of prominent LGBTQ+ content creators who argued that the defendants wielded a strikingly similar “tool kit of unlawful speech suppression” to discriminate against video content posted or viewed by members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Plaintiffs: Defendants Have ‘Some Serious Explaining to Do’
According to the lawsuit, the defendants’ public stance has been that YouTube’s content and access restrictions are “the product of good faith, viewpoint neutral, and identity blind content reviews and decisions.”
Regardless of the companies’ policies and public statements, the lawsuit argues that the discriminatory conduct alleged in the complaint has been nothing but “knowing, intentional, and systematic,” whether motivated by the defendants’ racial animus or a desire to use racial profiling to increase profits.
The case notes that on June 11, 2020, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that YouTube, in conjunction with Alphabet, was starting a $10 million fund “dedicated to amplifying and developing the voices of Black creators and artists and their stories.” The plaintiffs argue that in light of YouTube’s stated insistence that “we all need to do more to dismantle systemic racism,” the defendants have “some serious explaining to do” regarding the treatment of the plaintiffs and other content creators using their platform.
According to the case, “[the plaintiffs] would prefer that Defendants spend their money to stop the racist practices that pervade the YouTube platform.”
Who Does the Lawsuit Look to Represent?
The four plaintiffs—who respectively own “The True Royal Family,” “Lisa Cabrera,” “Cooking with Carmen Caboom,” “Nicole’s View,” and several other YouTube channels—look to represent the following proposed class:
All persons or entities in the United States who are or were:
(i) a person or entity defined or classified as a protected class or person under 42 U.S.C. §1981; and
(ii) are members, users and or consumers of YouTube who uploaded, posted, or viewed video content on YouTube subject to Google/YouTube’s Terms of Service, Mission Statement, Community Guidelines, and/or any other content-based filtering, monetization, distribution, personal data use policies, advertising or regulation and practices any other regulations or practices that are related to the YouTube Platform on or after January 1, 2015 and continuing through to June 16, 2020.”
Can I Join the Lawsuit?
Most of the time, there’s nothing you need to do to participate in a class action lawsuit until the case is settled.
In the meantime, you can keep up with class action news and updates by signing up for ClassAction.org’s newsletter here.