YouTube and the rise of geolocational filtering

By: spambot on 13 March 2008

YouTomb, a project of the MIT Free Culture group that studies takedown notices by the video-sharing website YouTube, has identified a mechanism used by Google to restrict video content in specific countries. This appears to be the method YouTube is using to filter videos on behalf of governments and private actors that request it.

A growing number of countries have instituted mostly short-lived blocks against YouTube for containing culturally or politically sensitive content, including Brazil, China, Morocco, Syria, Thailand and Turkey. On February 22, 2008, Pakistani ISPs were ordered to partially block YouTube reportedly in reaction to a video making fun of the Prophet Muhammad, and ended up disrupting access to the entire site for users around the world for up to a few hours. In some cases, YouTube has blocked the identified offending video(s) in that country in order to have the block lifted.

In the course of investigating the opaque process of take downs, the team noticed an unusual flag in the XML data attached to official video clips uploaded by the National Basketball Association (NBA). They noted that some of the NBA videos have flags [media :restriction type="country" relationship="deny">CN] indicating that they are coded to be restricted from viewing in China. Further investigation showed that Yao Ming-related videos also carry the restriction flag. However, the mechanism for flagging was not described in the API documentation from Google and a quick look into the upload panel of a standard Youtube account did not show a way for users to code this flag. The team also checked a director level account and still could not find a way to create these restrictions. At this point, the Youtomb team hypothesized that content could be easily censored using this mechanism despite lack of concrete evidence of the practice, and began searching specific keywords and videos provided by the ONI team.

In April 2007, the Thai government blocked YouTube after it initially refused to comply with demands to remove a video intended to offend King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In Thailand, the crime of lese majeste—defaming, insulting or threatening the royal family--is punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment. In August, the Thai Ministry of Information Communications and Technology (MICT) agreed to lift the ban after YouTube agreed to prevent some of these lese majeste videos from being accessed through Thai ISPs.

Youtomb has confirmed that this policy persists in Thailand. In accessing these videos for the purpose of documenting restrictions, ONI and Youtomb found that the majority, but not all, of the videos leveling insult at the King tested by ONI and Youtomb carry the restriction flag. When trying to access these clips, users of the Thai ISP CAT see a pink band across the top of the YouTube page which states, "This video is not available in your country."

Some of the videos that appear to intentionally invoke lese majeste are included below, with almost identical content but varying in popularity, with numbers of views ranging from a few thousands to tens of thousands. Many of these appear to be uploaded by users opposed to the criminalization of lese majeste in Thailand. They all carry the restriction flag.


Not the usual suspects—yet

After discovering that standard NBA highlight material contained a flag restricting viewing in China, the team attempted to scan for videos known to be sensitive to the Chinese government, using keywords such as "falun gong", "tiananmen", "tank man", "mao", and “cultural revolution.” Searches for keywords like "Mao" yielded a restricted video featuring the figure skater Mao Asado, produced by CBC. The video carries the restriction flag for a hodgepodge of countries: Guadeloupe, French Guyana, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, French Southern Territories, French Polynesia, Germany, Poland, Réunion, Mayotte, France, and Martinique. Other videos about Mao Asada are not restricted anywhere. A handful of other Yao Ming related videos were also found, restricted only in China. For China, none of the videos Youtomb selected on the basis of sensitive keywords carried the flag. This is a demonstration of how YouTube can accommodate both the requests of governments as well as private interests in applying this tool to restrict content to entire countries of users.

In Turkey, YouTube has been blocked a number of times in the past year for content the government considered offensive to founding father Kamal Ataturk and the Turkish people. However, the YouTomb team found no restriction tag for Turkey in reviewing a selection of videos laying insult to Ataturk.

The YouTomb team has started scanning Geert Wilders-related videos for evidence of media restrictions or takedown attempts in Pakistan. A watchlist will be set up to monitor the scope of content to which these flags are applied to restrict access. Potential new restrictions could spring from proposed legislation in Thailand, which would extend lese majeste protection to certain relatives of the monarch and privy council members, or videos critical of the Koran or Musharraf in Pakistan.

Negotiating Expression

The fact that YouTube is selectively filtering videos by location is not new; many of these examples have been reported widely in the press. The YouTomb investigations seem to have uncovered the technical mechanism that YouTube uses to implement this selective filtering, one that can be easily scaled up to block many more videos than are currently filtered, or in many more countries. YouTube is one of the most important global sites that define the emergence of Web 2.0, facilitating the proliferation of user-generated videos in the read/write culture that has greatly increased the ability and impact of participatory media and culture. Given the size and influence of YouTube, the policies adopted by Google and YouTube hold great importance for free expression. They are also inconsistent: Google Video allows users themselves to choose country restrictions for their videos, a functionality that is not available on the YouTube upload panel.

However, Google and YouTube seem to be falling into line with the realities of an increasingly fractured and bordered Internet. Google has been at the center of debates over the role of private companies in promoting and restricting freedom of expression. While Google has publicly declared its commitment to promoting freedom of expression and information, they have also been convinced to restrict search results or users in a number of countries. It cites the imperative of obeying local law and/or culture in various jurisdictions as the rationale for blocking neo-Nazi content in Germany and its search services to minors in South Korea, but this becomes problematic in countries with politically repressive governments. For services such as where search results are the most restricted, Google’s primary justification is that on balance, implementing such restrictions actually expands the overall scope of information and expression.

These agreements between YouTube and governments raise some troubling questions. Do the disclosures made by YouTube and Google [“This video is not available in your country" and “A portion of these search results cannot be displayed in accordance with local laws and regulations”] provide sufficient transparency to users on the processes, negotiations and concessions underlying the censorship? For example, Thailand became one of the only countries in Asia to require court authorization for filtering when King Bhumibol signed the Act on Computer Crime into law on June 10, 2007. Yet neither the Thai government nor YouTube seem to be interested in pursuing formal legal channels to implement video-specific filtering. In April 2007, YouTube’s head of communications was quoted in a Wall Street Journal editorial as saying: “We will not take down videos that do not violate our policies, and will not assist in implementing censorship, we have offered to educate the Thai ministry about YouTube and how it works." Almost a year later, YouTube has made de facto policy out of hewing to the Thai government’s demands based on its domestic law.

In the case of Thailand, filtering has not been implemented by a government within its borders, but by a private actor using its own resources. The Thai government used the threat and actual execution of blocking as a bargaining chip to achieve more selective local filtering. YouTube’s geolocational filtering sidesteps legally mandated procedures and heads into a murky zone of cooperation between government and private actors in policing the scope of expression, a line that is becoming less and less clear.

Many of these decisions are being driven by technological capacity. ISPs in many of the countries intent on blocking YouTube videos do not have the capability to block individual videos. This leaves them with few choices: do nothing, block the entire YouTube site, or lean on Google to selectively block videos for them. YouTube’s country-specific tagging system suggests that it is prepared to carry this out at a broad scale, at least technologically. It is not difficult to imagine a growing number of countries lining up to request special help from YouTube to block specific videos, perhaps even providing them a regularly updated list. China is a notable exception in that it has the capacity to block individual YouTube videos, and YouTomb has not yet discovered restriction flags on videos containing content the government considers sensitive. However, this raises the question of whether and to what extent YouTube may decide to implement a voluntary filtering strategy for China, such as Google and Yahoo! search engines and Microsoft’s MSN Spaces.

YouTomb methodology

Youtube can be accessed through the Google gData API that is publicly documented and does not require any keys. This type of access allows the Youtomb team to "scan" through thousands of videos at a time. Certain URLs allow for the scanning of particular meta properties such as popularity. These URLs provide a continually updated feed of videos that have been viewed by the most viewers at the time of the request. This is the default feed that Youtomb spends its time parsing and evaluating for take down notices. The resulting XML document generally contains multiple videos. The method of enumerating which countries are currently restricted from playback is also defined in the API documentation. The documentation lists a parameter to define the IP address where a video will ultimately be displayed. Restrictions are based on the ISO 3166 2-letter country code.

Similarly, another URL allows for topic- or keyword-based scanning. The API describes a different URL for this type of scanning returns results based on this, not popularity (politically sensitive videos may not be viewed as widely as the mainstream videos that dominate Youtube).

Finally, every video has an identifier which can be used to retrieve information about specific videos. This is the most powerful tool used by the Youtomb team for manual analysis of videos on its "watchlist". Known offensive videos, such as the "Geert Wilders" videos, can be targeted and monitored over time for the inclusion of a media restriction flag. This process led to the confirmation of Youtube's lese majeste filtering from Thai viewers. The automation of this process is under construction, and will be added to the YouTomb site soon.