Sign up for a daily newsletter defining what matters in business and markets


Why YouTube needs principles

There are two kinds of enforcement mechanisms. Silicon Valley is a world of 1s and 0s and naturally gravitates towards rules-based systems: If this, then that. Once you set the rules, the job of enforcing them becomes routine.

The state of play: The alternative is a principles-based system. You start with a set of high-level principles (if you're causing someone significant harm, that's bad; if you're causing pleasure and enjoyment, that isn't), and then try to police your domain according to those principles. In the legal system, principles can be found in areas like sentencing guidelines or even the "reasonable doubt" test.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wants rules. "From a policy standpoint, we need to be consistent," Wojcicki told Axios' Ina Fried on Monday. "If we took down that content, there would be so much other content that we would need to take down."

The big picture: YouTube's rules-based system is not working. Malign creators like Steven Crowder are effectively gaming the system and causing significant harm. A principles-based system — one where a single decision doesn't cause a binding precedent for the future — would be much more effective at cracking down on bad actors, and would also allow benign actors to escape unnecessary censure.

What they’re saying: Vox Media's Peter Kafka and Nilay Patel both put it to Wojcicki that YouTube was too big and too heterogeneous to be able to operate a one-size-fits-all set of bright-line rules about which content stays up and which stays down. But Wojcicki rejected that idea outright. "We need to have consistent policies," she said. "We don't want it to be hey, I don't like this video, or this video is offensive, take it down."

  • Wojcicki told Fried that she was "truly sorry" for the hurt that YouTube had caused the LGBTQ community, but she didn't specify any particular action that she was sorry for. Indeed, she insisted that she had ultimately done the right thing to do, and that, given her druthers, she would do it all over again.

Background: The NYT's Sarah Jeong recently explained to her colleague Charlie Warzel that in a legal system there are good reasons to have hard-and-fast rules.

  • "Standards are harder to enforce," she wrote, "so you’re more likely to get delays in the courts and inconsistency in decisions."
  • But YouTube already suffers from delays and inconsistencies in its enforcement. Meanwhile, in a principles-based system, YouTube would find it much easier to take down hateful videos.

By the numbers: A rules-based system takes work. Wojcicki said that YouTube's recent incremental policy change on hate speech "took months and months of work, and hundreds of people we had working on that."

  • But a principles-based system would require even more work. Under such a system, "there would be literally millions of other people saying what about this video, what about this video, what about this video," she said.

The bottom line: A YouTube that based its decisions on high-level principles rather than bright-line rules would create more work for itself, but also provide more accountability for the rest of us. As Warzel told Jeong, "When it comes to principles, YouTube is either lacking or too afraid to express them publicly."