YouTube this week updated the company’s terms of service to accomplish what’s now an obvious goal of any giant corporation: giving itself more leeway to do whatever it wants.
The latest update to YouTube’s TOS, unveiled over the weekend, makes it clear that the company “is under no obligation to host or serve content” if it doesn’t want to. Another section of the update further clarifies that the company is free to boot users off any of its platforms—from YouTube to Gmail—if they’re not worth the expense.
“YouTube may terminate your access, or your Google account’s access to all or part of the service if YouTube believes, in its sole discretion, that provision of the service to you is no longer commercially viable,” the updated language reads. The changes are the third TOS revision in the last year and weren’t greeted warmly by many content creators or Reddit users. Many expressed concern the updated changes could be used to unfairly drive users off the platform or even block Adblock users.
Google for its part told Motherboard there was nothing nefarious about the update.
“We updated the language in our Terms of Service to make it more transparent and easy to understand,” a Google spokesperson told Motherboard. “All pretty standard practice,” the spokesperson added, noting that there was no corresponding changes to company products, users settings, or how the company works with creators. Google was also quick to point out that the references to “commercial viability” aren’t entirely new, and some variant of the same language has existed in its TOS since around 2018. The latest update just further clarifies YouTube’s right to kick you offline at its discretion.
YouTube has faced widespread criticism over the company’s moderating of online content. Some believe the company’s policies are arbitrary and ill defined, and others insist the company isn’t going far enough to police things like internet hate speech. The company has come under particular fire for exploitative content that targets children.
Standard practice or not, copyright and policy lawyer Dylan Gilbert told Motherboard in an email that such TOS updates pretty routinely only favor one side of the corporate consumer equation. “Dominant tech platforms like YouTube can harm users both economically and non-economically by taking action against them for alleged misconduct, or even for not being ‘commercially viable’ in this case, by terminating their accounts or de-monetizing content,” Gilbert told Motherboard. Gilbert was quick to point out that the updated TOS doesn’t mean that YouTube will terminate any accounts, just that it can. The real problem is that consumers don’t really have much recourse if they’re targeted unfairly. However flawed copyright laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) are, there’s at least some degree of recourse for bogus takedowns. In this case, ever-shifting fine print means YouTube and Google can do pretty much whatever it likes with little to no public recourse, banning users or channels at its discretion. There’s no rules ensuring the process is fair, and there’s no neutral third party who’ll independently audit the process to ensure users aren’t being unfairly screwed.
“Folks are justified in being alarmed at the broadening of the language in the TOS, but it doesn't necessarily mean that things are going to turn into YouTube starting to terminate left and right,” Gilbert said. “The biggest issue in our view is that the users don't have any recourse if the power gets abused.”