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Follow the Money (part 2 of 3): Viacom vs. YouTube


Unusual connections abound in hyperspace, and not just from html linking within web pages. Take for example the unlikely cohabitation between a teen pop star and human rights activism on the same website. With the egalitarian nature of content available on the Internet, unlikely partners such as Justin Bieber, the TV-like Really Annoying Orange, and human rights abuse reporting in Iran, can come together in one multi-interest forum- YouTube.

As of January 2010 YouTube had grown 137% in video views for each year in business and served 12 billion videos in just the month of November 2009 alone. That is an enormous amount of eyes glued to one URL destination. With so many people clamoring to get to the same web hosting service, you can imagine there might be other players concerned with the zero-sum theory that YouTube’s gain is their loss. It is not simply eyes being contested but the potential loss of income that other companies either in the server arena or content producers would like for their own coffers instead. 

To follow the money, YouTube's services must be understood. YouTube provides a location, a virtual public square where anyone with the computer to upload a video can have a voice, and anyone with computer access can listen. It is digital democracy. Save the digital and technological divide, those on the side of having technology are given the space to share their talent and opinions, and viewers have the ability to share along and give their voice. This is where Justin Bieber and human rights abuses come in.

Justin Bieber started posting videos of himself singing on YouTube when he was 12, and today he is now moving towards the pop star hall of fame, and money. It was feedback from viewers on YouTube who made him popular enough that Island Def Jam Recordings in 2009 signed him up under the tutelage of Usher. From a nobody in Canada to living large in Atlanta, Justin Bieber utilized YouTube as the public venue where he shared and popularized his music.

There is a youthful zeal to YouTube of people getting around or noticed by institutions and bringing their own voice to the conversation. To the watching masses, the same venue used by Bieber was used by protestors in Iran to showcase Iranian human abuses worldwide, and garner attention for their cause. With the same do-it-yourself attitude and youthful ambition, Arin Crumley decided to stop fighting with movie production companies to get his feature film in theaters and opted for YouTube instead to the proven enjoyment of over a million views.

YouTube provides the servers, software, and technicians to make the digital venue viable, but the content is the creation or addition of the users, but here is where the money trail clamors with the public square. Not all companies, in this case Viacom specifically, are happy with content being added and disseminated by users. Viacom struck back to the tune of a federal lawsuit claiming one billion $US plus in damages.

According to Viacom, the damages were due to users illegally posting content owned by Viacom onto YouTube. Once YouTube was given proper notices of the infringement, YouTube immediately sent stop and desist notices, and the content was removed as any proper service would do. But, Viacom wants a different response from YouTube on top of money. Viacom wants “more human review, more keyword searching, more community flagging, and more digital fingerprinting” (see p. 21 of Amicus Brief - PDF).

In reality, Viacom would like YouTube to constantly police and make determinations on everything posted to YouTube to make sure nothing potentially illegal ever gets posted. Do you want YouTube policing what and when you post material? What would such policing mean to the digital public square where anyone, within technological ability, can have a voice and theoretically be heard? YouTube is not like Wikipedia  where users add the content too. Wikipedia is non-profit while YouTube seeks an income over and above costs. It is this income that Viacom wants to attack. But such an attack comes at a cost to users.

YouTube and all other server companies would stifle creativity from their own fears of being sued. Along with this stifling could be computer generated and in-person censoring that might or might not be accurate. In the end, you the user and you the speaker will be quieted. While the library can overcome some aspects of the digital divide, it cannot force companies like YouTube to make all access possible. It is now up to the court system to decide what you will be seeing on YouTube soon. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) a decision should be made this summer.

Money talks and we must wait and listen.


Interested in reading more about the digital divide, freedom of expression, and YouTube in the digital age? One of the best digital resources is the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) website which has been linked to heavily in this article. Founded in 1990 , the mission of the EFF is to “confront issues” facing consumers of digital media against the illegal encroachment of government entities, institutions, and corporations. In addition to EFF 's website, try these books from the library or ask your librarian for more suggestions: 


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This section on Viacom vs.

This section on Viacom vs. YouTube was most informative! Thank you.

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