Russia: YouTube must do more to protect free speech

Today, YouTube restored content that led to the SmartVote project, an initiative set up by prominent Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, following media outcry that the takedown could have been politically motivated. ARTICLE 19 calls on YouTube to be far more transparent about its content moderation processes, to provide effective complaints mechanisms in line with its human rights responsibilities and to establish contact points for journalists, activists and other groups at risk.

On 6 May 2021, Youtube removed the hyperlinks to SmartVote in videos of several media outlets – Sota Vision, Novaya Gazeta and a channel linked to opposition politician Ilya Yashin – allegedly following complaints from Roskomnadzor (RKN), the Russia federal media and telecommunication regulator. According to the notification received from YouTube’s administrators, the hyperlinks violated the video-hosting service’s community rules on “spam, deceptive practices, and scam policies”. Additionally, Novaya Gazeta was banned from uploading any content for a week, and Sota Vision was notified that the same thing would happen to them if uploads and content prompted more complaints.

A few hours after these actions attracted media coverage, the YouTube team told independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta that the decision to restrict access to their stream because of a link to Smart Voting initiative had been a mistake, and that in the end the content did not violate any of its rules. Videos and access were also restored for Sota Vision and Ilya Yashin.

“YouTube appears to have responded to political pressure in its decision to take down content related to Navalny’s project. Over the years, YouTube has become the main medium through which Russians can find a diversity of voices and opinions, different from official state TV channels. At the same time, independent YouTube channels which offer content criticising the authorities have encountered a number of problems, including bot attacks of ‘dislikes’ and content being blocked or removed with no clear justification or no justification at all. YouTube’s lack of transparency as to why this is happening results in conspiracy theories that the platform cooperates with the Russian government”, said Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia Team at ARTICLE 19.

This is not the first time that YouTube wrongfully removes the content of activists and platforms. Users are left guessing whether content was removed because of government pressure or because their algorithms got it wrong. The lack of consistency in the applications of companies’ terms of services is another longstanding problem. In this case, there was no evidence that the project, which identifies political candidates that are best-placed to defeat Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia, violated YouTube’s community guidelines.

YouTube’s policy downranking of ‘borderline’ content, i.e. content that is not in breach of its own community guidelines but is considered problematic by the company, can also effectively stifle legitimate debate on matters of public interest.

Russian independent media, vloggers, and opinion makers use YouTube as a platform for sharing independent content which would not be allowed on official state-controlled TV. The Russian audience is interested in this content, which is reflected by the number of subscribers and views. However, many channels struggle with YouTube’s lack of transparency, difficulties with appealing YouTube’s decisions, and the lack of open communication channels with the company. Some of the cases of content removal or blocking have been known to the public and have resulted in decisions being reversed and official explanations for the reasons for blocking — but only because there was extensive media coverage, and the channels are among the most popular ones. However, smaller channels, with 100,000-200,000 subscribers or less, are often left with no explanation. They cannot contact any ‘real’ person at YouTube, and their requests for information are left unanswered. Even if in the end the video is restored, YouTube does not appear to be keen on sharing the reasons why it was targeted in the first place. This lack of transparency leads to growing concerns and theories among Russian users that YouTube cooperates with the authorities and targets especially opposition content.

In February 2021, a group of Russian language YouTube channels published a call on YouTube to address their growing issues with the platform. YouTube has not reacted to the call.

YouTube plays a crucial role for Russian users in accessing content which would otherwise not be available in the country. It is therefore vital that YouTube takes action and addresses the concerns of Russian users in line with international human rights standards.

ARTICLE 19 calls on YouTube to:

  • be transparent about their decision-making processes, including the tools they use to moderate content, such as algorithms and their error rates, and reliance on trusted flagger-schemes;
  • give detailed notice of a complaint and the opportunity to respond prior to content removal;
  • resist government and court orders in breach of international standards on freedom of expression or privacy;
  • publish more detailed data on the numbers of complaints, content removal, accounts suspended or other content restrictions, and appeals which have been made, together with details on the category of content that was removed and/or reinstated
  • establish a contact person who can work directly with Russian users — bloggers, journalists, and opinion makers, including groups at risk — in order to assist them with problems they encounter on the platform, including appeals processes.

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