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YouTube's complaint system is pissing off its biggest users

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On Thursday, followers of Channel Awesome (370,456 subscribers) on YouTube got a strange new message. The channel usually specializes in pop culture riffs, but this was a more straightforward video, with host Douglas Walker laying out a three-week odyssey triggered by a single DMCA copyright claim against a clip he’d used from My Neighbor Totoro. According to Walker, the Totoro clip was in fair use, but appealing the complaint had sprawled into nearly a month of notices and counter-notices. "We’re coming up on three weeks of getting no monetization, no money for any of the videos we’ve put up, past and present," he said to the camera, growing more and more frantic. "Nobody has given us a straight answer. Nothing has been consistent. Nobody knows what’s going on."

Walker isn’t alone. The first weeks of 2016 saw a spate of similar videos from channels like Eli the Computer Guy (634,706 subscribers), Alternate History Hub (509,114 subscribers), and I Hate Everything (379,838 subscribers). The specific infractions are different in each case, but the broad strokes are the same: a random violation, a sudden restriction of advertising or upload features, and a very frustrated YouTuber ready to leave the channel entirely. Walker’s claim was resolved four hours after his video posted, but not every channel has been so lucky, and the ordeal has raised larger questions of creators’ place on the web’s largest video platform.

"Nobody has given us a straight answer. Nothing has been consistent. Nobody knows what’s going on."

The latest crop of angry users doesn’t seem to have resulted from a policy or enforcement change on YouTube’s part, and there’s no evidence that complaints or appeals are rising overall. Rather, the complaints seem to be the result of an appeal system that’s been strained since the beginning and is now reaching a breaking point. YouTube users who appeal a complaint can easily get trapped in a confusing automated system — and while the system has never been perfect, the stakes have grown higher and higher. "What's changed from my perspective is that this is the third year in a row I've earned over $100,000 from the platform and I'm getting tired of worrying about whether all my work is going to vanish," Eli Etherton told The Verge. "It's 2016, not 2009."

"We aim to allow as much content as possible on YouTube and still ensure that our Terms of Service, including our community guidelines and copyright policies, are followed," a YouTube spokesperson said when reached for comment. "We take feedback on our policy enforcement seriously, and we encourage people to flag any issues through the YouTube appeals and counter-notifications processes."

"It's 2016, not 2009."

Still, those policies can be complex and overlapping, leaving many YouTubers confused as to where they stand. In addition to the community and copyright policies, YouTube channels can also run afoul of the AdSense policies that determine what videos are appropriate to run ads against. Community and copyright violations are governed by a three-strike policy, but the decision to revoke monetization is often independent of that policy. As a result, it can be hard to say why ads were pulled on a specific channel like Eli the Computer Guy. "The real need for change is rules written in stone," Eli says. "’Malicious’ sounds easy to define until you get onto a platform with global reach."

YouTube relies on user-generated flags to enforce its policies, which can make violations maddeningly inconsistent. That model was established by the DMCA’s copyright complaint system, but it’s become the norm on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook alike, enforcing everything from user guidelines to advertising rules. But the scattershot nature of user complaints means video creators have little chance to get a feel for what kind of videos might trigger a violation in practice. An offending clip might sit on the network for years without being flagged, only causing problems when a channel builds up enough subscribers to attract attention.

Once the complaint is lodged, the venues for litigating it can be maddeningly opaque. "Anyone has the power to falsely flag videos, and there is no punishment for doing so, so ultimately the content creators are penalized," said Alex, who runs the popular I Hate Everything channel and declined to give his last name. "At this point a complete overhaul is necessary."

"At this point a complete overhaul is necessary."

Most of the recent complaints stem less from YouTube’s violation reporting system than from its appeals process, which for most YouTubers is still largely automated. For Google, that’s a feature rather than a bug: the company prides itself on scalable solutions that work as well for 10-follower accounts as they do for heavy-hitters like Eli. But as YouTube’s personalities become more important and more powerful, they’re coming to expect the kind of personalized treatment they would get from a television network. In Eli’s case, that’s what he got: he was contacted by a YouTube customer service representative the day after we spoke, and now says he’s likely to stay on the platform.

YouTube is still by far the largest source of video on the web, with hundreds of millions of hours watched each day, but the latest complaints come as the platform is facing more competition than ever. In November, Facebook announced its native videos were generating 8 billion views each day, and the social network rolled out live video features to all users just last week. For creators willing to do product placement, Snapchat is also an increasingly tempting way to make money from online video. But despite the growing number of alternatives, most online video personalities still see YouTube as the only game in town.

For Eli, leaving YouTube would have meant leaving web video entirely. Before YouTube’s representative found him, he was planning on making the leap to podcasting, which would make him less reliant on a single platform. With his following, he’s also well-placed to partner with a sponsored channel on YouTube or elsewhere. "I had actually turned down very lucrative offers to be a ‘personality’ for other people’s content in the past simply because I was happy with YouTube," Eli says.

Not everyone is as optimistic. Tech tricks can play on any platform, but for web culture vlogging like I Hate Everything, the possibilities are narrower. "I would happily move to another viable platform that treats their users better, except there isn't one," Alex says. "YouTube is a monopoly so they can do whatever they want. They know we'll keep using their website no matter what."

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