The YouTubers Union, a community-based movement fighting for the rights of content creators and users, has joined forces with IG Metall, Germany's largest union and Europe's largest trade union. Together, they have launched a joint venture called FairTube and sent a letter of demands to YouTube accompanied by a video explaining their concerns, demands, and plan of action.
The move is one of the most significant organized labor actions taken by creators on the platform, and puts some actual union power behind what has thus far been a nascent and disorganized movement.
In recent years, YouTube creators have consistently spoken out about changes to the massive platform that they say they are rarely consulted on that affect their ability to make money. For example, YouTube has repeatedly changed how it handles copyright takedown requests (allowing copyright holders to assert copyright on and monetize videos that they didn’t upload, for example.) YouTube has also controversially “demonetized” or issued content warnings to some innocuous channels. One of the creators leading the unionization charge, Jörg Sprave, has had his popular slingshot videos removed by YouTube.
"We aren't demanding things that cut into profits or are unrealistic. We want fairness. We want transparency. We want to be treated like partners. And we want personal communication instead of anonymous communication," Sprave told Motherboard.
In a video announcing the move, IG Metall’s Vice President Christiane Benner, Sprave said that the partnership meant “a completely new time begins. It is no longer the case that we are helpless against Youtube. With the IG Metall, we have a strong, strong partner.” Benner added, “We know from experience that together we can achieve a lot."
Sprave traced the origins of the problems leading to this recent move back to changes in YouTube’s relationship to advertisers following 2017’s “Adpocalypse.” In 2017 major advertisers organized a boycott of YouTube after learning their ads were running alongside "extremist content” videos and demanded the Google-owned platform implement "brand safety controls.” While the changes kept advertisers on the site, they also changed YouTube channels make money from ad revenue.
According to Sprave, the door was now open to more threats of advertiser boycotts as a tactic to gain leverage over Youtube. "Advertisers want control over content that they are displaying against like in magazines,” Sprave told Motherboard. “YouTube previously did not allow this but caved in after the companies threatened to leave."
This year, another Adpocalypse looms as YouTube has failed to address predatory behavior on content featuring children. And yet, YouTube’s net ad revenue has consistently grown every year since 2017 and from around $7.8 billion to $10.5 billion this year, according to projections by Vidmob, a market research company.
Sprave said that Google has transformed YouTube from "a platform to a curated network." In response to the first Adpocalypse, YouTube introduced a series of brand safety controls that allow businesses to opt-out of running ads against certain videos based on the video’s categorization.
"Tick-tock, the clock is ticking"
The introduction of these categories has proven to be incredibly consequential and opaque. As a result of their implementation, "creators are making less money, have less stability, and are constantly being suppressed and demonetized now that YouTube is in favor of ad-safe brands,” Sprave said. Even before the Adpocalypse, the top 3 percent of YouTubers got close to 90 percent of all traffic and even then, their average income was around $17,000 a year, according to a study by Mathias Bärtl, a professor at Offenburg University.
The combination of threats by advertisers that have empowered them to change who gets monetized, the increasing inability to make a living, and the opaque nature of how these rules are being constructed have left YouTubers feeling that the golden age of the platform is long over.
The opaque nature of the rules surrounding demonetization and deletion have sparked a crisis of burnout among YouTube content creators. In a letter to YouTube signed by Sprave and Christiane Benner, the Vice President of IG Metall, FairTube asks that "all categories and decision criteria that affect Creators' earning capability, especially monetization and search and discovery, shall be transparent.” FairTube also asks that "individual decisions regarding videos and channels shall be precisely explained" so that, for example, a guideline violation results in the Creator being told why YouTube took action against their video or channel.
Sprave proposes actually making YouTubers equal partners by giving them "a seat at the table when it comes to decision making.” The letter of demands asks that "a formal body, such as a Partner Advisory Board, shall be established by which YouTube Partners can participate in decisions that affect them."
Tying all this together is a demand for more personal communication, as opposed to interactions through an automated system. The letter of demands asks that "qualified, organizationally empowered, human contact persons shall be made available for YouTube Partners" but also makes clear the desire that "Creators shall be able to contest any decision affecting them, including but not limited to monetization and search and discovery" with the help of an independent mediation board.
The union IG Metall has a clever idea to get YouTube to actually accede to these basic demands. It hopes to use Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to improve their working conditions. There are two terms needed to understand the GDPR’s role here: “data controller” and “data subject.” A data controller is a company or organization that determines how or why personal data is going to be processed, while a data subject is any person whose data is being collected, held, or processed.
"The rights provided to people under the GDPR are all about their relationship between a ‘data subject’ and a ‘controller.’ About what rights the subject have and what responsibilities and obligations a controller has,” Michael Six Silberman, IG Metall’s project secretary, said. “The right to be informed if a controller is storing personal data about you and what they're doing with it. The right to receive a copy of all the data they have about you. The right to have data corrected or forgotten."
Silberman said that thanks to a recent court case, judges confirmed that people have the right to “communication to [the person] in an intelligible form.”
This is important for a host of reasons. If the case can be made that YouTube's categorizations for creators constitute personal data, then the list of demands by FairTube would have to be met in full, Silberman said."Part of this is gonna depend on if they say 'it will be our approach to do the minimal amount possible to be compliant with the law,'” he said. “Or if they will take the attitude that 'we care about YouTubers and care that they are having severe mental health problems as a result of living under algorithmic management.’”
Silberman fears that the former option could lead to "a caste system" if the rules are only obeyed in the European Union where the GDPR is the law of the land. He hopes that the latter is chosen where "they make this algorithmic management system scalable while treating people like they deserve to be treated. And they take these rules for Europe and apply them to everyone."
IG Metall and the YouTubers Union have given YouTube four weeks to respond to their demands, with a deadline of August 23.
"Tick-tock, the clock is ticking," Sprave said in the video.
YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.