To say that YouTubers have an uneasy relationship with the company that hosts their videos would be a massive understatement. It’s not uncommon for YouTube to demonetize videos with little in the way of explanation and, as recent terms of service update reminded users, it can also just straight up remove videos and channels whenever it wants, should it deem such a thing necessary. This has led to renewed calls for YouTubers to unionize, although the logistics of an action like that might be tricky.
This recently added terms of service clause are part of an update that will officially go into effect on December 10. YouTube has already made the details public. The clause states that “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.” Many initially took this to mean that YouTube might start indiscriminately pulling the plug on channels that don’t have enough subscribers or aren’t otherwise raking in those sweet content dollars.
After a weekend of uproar, YouTube clarified to The Verge that it’s “not changing the way our products work, how we collect or process data, or any of your settings.” Instead, this new update is focused on clarification. Certainly, it puts things in stark terms; elsewhere in the terms of service, the company outright states that it’s “under no obligation to host or serve Content.” It can, in other words, remove whatever it sees fit. But that’s pretty much always been the case. In addition, a version of the “commercially viable” clause has been in the site’s terms of service since last year. While the latest iteration states that YouTube has “sole discretion” to terminate access, the previous one said that YouTube first needed to “reasonably believe” it had cause to do so.
Still, the sheer degree of control the YouTube exercises over content created by users—even the highest-earning of whom are still contractors, rather than full-time employees—has revived calls for a YouTuber union.
“You(BetterMakeMoneyForUs)Tube,” Emerican Johnson of YouTube channel NonCompete said on Twitter. “This is such a big deal. YouTube is so clearly the enemy of creators. Time to get serious about unionizing.”
“This is also a huge one,” said leftist YouTuber Peter Coffin. “If we could unionize that would be significant.”
In response to these tweets and others like them, many fans pointed to the efforts of a group called FairTube. Organized by Jörg Sprave, a German YouTuber with over 2.3 million subscribers, FairTube describes itself as “a campaign to get more fairness and transparency for all YouTube Creators” and has support from IG Metall, the largest trade union in the EU. Recently, FairTube and IG Metall claimed they had organized a meeting with YouTube, only for that meeting to fall through because, Sprave said, YouTube told him he had his own contact at the company. (YouTubers generally have specific contacts they’re supposed to reach out to within the company to address specific grievances.) Today, FairTube kicked off a mass letter-writing action in response to this. FairTube has yet to make a statement about the new YouTube terms of service, but it remains the most visible example of an organizing effort taking place in YouTube’s backyard.
Update 11/12/19, 2:00 PM—Michael “Six” Silberman, a representative of FairTube and IG Metall, told Kotaku in an email that “the introduction of this clause shows how necessary, relevant, and timely the FairTube proposals for more fairness and transparency are.”
“We have no signal so far about how the phrase ‘commercially viable’ will be interpreted,” said Silberman. “It could simply mean closing ‘dead’ accounts, or it could mean the closure of channels operated by groups YouTube perceives as undesirable for one reason or another.”
While he expressed hope in the fact that legislators in California and the EU are slowly but surely attempting to regulate platform holders like YouTube and Facebook, he doesn’t like what he’s seeing out of YouTube on the whole.
“YouTube’s business policies seem, sadly, to be getting worse,” Silberman said. “Even as viewers and creators call for more transparency and accountability, management has introduced this new vague clause which gives them unfettered, unaccountable power. As the German lawyer Rüdiger Helm said recently in a gig economy case before the Bavarian State Labor Court in Nuremberg, the ‘Damocles sword of deactivation hangs over every platform worker.’ We would add: When the platform operator reserves the right to deactivate any account at their sole discretion according to vague or unspecified criteria, with no right to contest, workers are living in a Kafkaesque algorithmic bureaucracy.”
Given that YouTubers are not employed by YouTube, there are lots of logistical and legal questions surrounding how they might organize. Coffin pointed out that, ultimately, YouTube has the power that verges on absolute, and in order for collective action to impact the company, it’s going to have to be extremely collective.
“The automated horseshit we deal with is because we do not have the collective power to cause a real problem for YouTube,” he said on Twitter. “We are not significant in their eyes. There are many lifestyle vloggers with single accounts that reach more people than leftist YouTube combined with every single upload. They are able to fight back because they whip those audiences up against YouTube… We can’t be pretending we have the power we just don’t have at the moment. The question is how to get that power rather than what to do with it.”