Chase Ross has been a YouTuber since before people said “YouTuber.” A screen shot from one of his early videos shows the apple-cheeked trans teen dressed in an argyle sweater, staring head-on into the camera as his arms blur in low-res motion; the title caption says he is “dancing for Ellen DeGeneres.” It was 2006, just before the then one-year-old video blogging platform was acquired by Google. The YouTube Partner Program, which would pave the way for top content creators to tap into deepening pools of advertising revenue, was yet another year away from existence.
“I was [on YouTube] before monetization was,” says Ross by phone, wryly incredulous. “Wow. Good times.”
Ross grew up with—and on—YouTube. It was there that he found videos by other trans kids, and where he began to connect the dots regarding his own gender identity. For young queer and trans people like Ross, YouTube quickly emerged as a safe space to find community amid the often-hostile world offline—where LGBTQ2 youth were, and are, often relentlessly bullied to the point that they are at a higher risk for mental health issues and suicidality. He began to document his burgeoning awareness, chronicle his medical transition and establish himself as a friendly voice on trans issues through his channel uppercaseCHASE1. Now, the 28-year-old Montrealer is among eight LGBTQ2 YouTubers representing five channels who are suing YouTube and its parent company, Google, for discrimination.
Ross and his fellow plaintiffs allege that the platform has restricted, hidden and demonetized their videos, penalizing content tagged with keywords like “trans,” “gay” and “lesbian.” They say that, in so doing, YouTube has failed to uphold its policy of moderating videos according to content-based filtering guidelines that “apply equally to all” of its users. Whether by a fluke of machine learning—a case of an algorithm-gone-rogue, as some of the plaintiffs suspect—or nefarious intent, LGBTQ2 creators say they have not been treated equally.
The trouble began in 2017, Ross says. A number of YouTube viewers and creators began to notice that queer and trans content wasn’t appearing on the site’s Restricted Mode setting—a voluntary parental control designed to filter out mature content. The result: Videos about queer and trans people, or featuring queer or trans themes, were being shut out from the widest possible audience regardless of its explicitness. A minor tweetstorm ensued.
“I didn’t even know about Restricted Mode until it was brought up by, you know, people who have Twitter,” Ross recalls. Sure enough, he saw that under the child-safe setting, which is open to all viewers, only a fraction of his videos could be found. Also missing were videos by many of his friends within YouTube’s vast network of LGBTQ2 creators.
By then, Ross had been using his channel to cover trans-related subjects for seven years, including sexual health tips, “Trans 101” explainers and personal updates. He concedes that he can understand how some of his videos might have been age-restricted—product reviews of vibrators or prosthetic penises, for instance. But as far as Ross could tell, a majority of the hidden content seemed innocuous. It seemed as though trans and queer content was being deemed as inappropriate in and of itself, even when it didn’t contain any sex, nudity or curse words—or any other content that would typically get videos restricted.
“And then,” he says, “the demonetization happened.” This meant that YouTube pulled ad slots from age-restricted videos, which now comprised the bulk of Ross’s content; this restricted Ross’s ability to earn any income from the channel. It seemed as though he was being punished for producing the types of videos that had built his audience in the first place—that is, videos about his trans experience.
Ross says that his repeated efforts to solicit support from YouTube customer service were met with “the same copy-paste, generic answer” inviting him to appeal the potential miscategorization of individual videos. He eventually decided to test the possible variables himself, setting out to confirm or deny his suspicion that “bringing up anything trans-related” would get a video demonetized.
In the spring of 2018, Ross posted a video to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his top surgery procedure, a significant milestone. Once posted, the video was immediately demonetized; he wondered whether the word “trans” in the title was to blame. (A YouTuber with a million subscribers who uploads an average of one video per week can feasibly expect to make upwards of $50,000 USD in a year, but actual earnings vary widely. For Ross, YouTube was a major source of income.) He deleted the video, changed its file and thumbnail names, and re-uploaded it without any title, description or tags. Now, the same video was monetized.
Bit by bit, he added information: a description, tags, a thumbnail. It wasn’t until he typed “FTM transgender” at the end of the title that he says the video’s monetization badge disappeared in an instant.
“Still, to this day, I honestly can’t believe that happened,” he says.
More than 4,700 kilometres away in San Francisco, Chris Knight and Celso Dulay—co-owners of Glitter Bomb TV and the digital brand marketing company Divino Group—were navigating a similar predicament. Since 2014, Dulay has co-hosted GNews!, a weekly LGBTQ2 current affairs show on YouTube. In order to extend the channel’s reach and attract new viewers, the duo had come to rely on purchasing advertisement slots for GNews! episodes via Google AdWords. In other words, they were paying a Google advertisement platform to run ads on a Google video blogging platform, promoting a channel that was native to that platform itself.
“Somewhere around 2017,” says Dulay, “we were getting our advertising denied and we were getting slapped with these categories saying we had shocking content.” The abrupt shift took Knight and Dulay by surprise; as had always been the case, their news shows didn’t contain profanity, explicit language or images.
Pleading phone calls with Google AdWords customer service personnel became a routine part of Knight and Dulay’s lives. With each call, they would have to explain that their videos were being erroneously classified as mature content by some mysterious, algorithmic glitch.
“You have to go through the whole rigmarole to appeal the decision that the AI has made,” Dulay says. “[A human will] then personally review the video and then they make their assertions, and they either maintain the hold or they release the hold.” By the time Google got around to approving an ad for an episode, 10 days—and the episode’s newsworthiness—could well have passed.
Dulay and Knight couldn’t figure out what, if anything, they were doing wrong. No matter how vanilla and tame, their videos kept getting flagged. The last straw came in December 2017, when the duo wanted to run an ad for a special holiday episode. Once again, their video was flagged for “shocking content” and denied advertisement. Dulay and Knight called Google AdWords customer service and asked to speak to a manager—but this time, they recorded the call.
“If you have any content about sexuality or anything like that, that would be violating policy under AdWords [and considered] shocking content,” says the call centre representative in a recording of the phone call provided to Xtra. When pressed for clarification, he goes on to elaborate: “It’s the gay thing, sir.”
Google apologized for what they said was a “misunderstanding” and eventually approved the ad. It was mid-January of 2018; the holiday season had come and gone. After everything, Google’s apologies were too little, too late.
Censorship was just the tip of the iceberg. The plaintiffs allege that, while YouTube was wrongfully flagging queer and trans content as inappropriate, it allowed homophobic and transphobic attacks to flourish with minimal intervention.
In June of this year, YouTube took to Twitter to respond to complaints from Vox host Carlos Maza over persistent racist and homophobic attacks by far-right YouTube personality Steven Crowder. Just a month earlier, Maza tweeted that he’d been doxxed and harassed by Crowder’s fans as a result of the unending taunts, which were allowed to persist in spite of their apparent violation of YouTube’s anti-harassment policies. Adding insult to injury by tweeting under a Pride Month rainbow logo, YouTube stated that, while the company had determined that Crowder’s videos included “language that was clearly hurtful,” the videos were not found to violate YouTube’s policies. To mollify an incensed public, YouTube later said it would ban discriminatory videos from the platform. But Crowder’s videos were merely demonetized, not removed altogether. Maza, meanwhile, has stopped posting YouTube videos and reportedly parted ways with Vox.
Homophobic hate speech was in large part what motivated plaintiff Lindz Amer to join the suit. Amer launched their channel Queer Kid Stuff in 2014 and has been actively producing new episodes for the past three years. From day one, Amer says the channel has been subject to an endless stream of “massive, massive amounts of harassment.” The deluge of hateful comments has forced Amer to disable the channel’s comment section—at catastrophic expense to the reach and community-building prized by queer and trans YouTube creators, and to the detriment of their young audience members seeking a place of inclusion and acceptance.
The importance of safe online spaces is starkest on Amer’s channel, which focuses on educational programming for young children and families; Knight and Dulay describe Amer as “a non-binary Mr. Rogers.” Disturbingly, other YouTubers have copied some of Amer’s videos and dubbed them with hateful commentary that is sometimes visible to Amer’s target audience.
“I’m aiming for ages, like, three to seven,” says Amer. “So, you can imagine, it’s not a great environment for kids to come to my videos, watch them, click on another one with my face on it, and then hear someone screaming about me being, like, a fat cunt.”
Amer says that LGBTQ2 creators have had more than enough of YouTube’s shoddy treatment.
“Over the last couple of years, I feel like every nine months or so, there’s another big hubbub in the media about how YouTube is treating its queer creators poorly,” they say. “I think we’re just pretty fed up with it, so that’s why we’re taking legal action.”
Following more than a year of legal preparation and outreach with other queer and trans YouTubers, Knight and Dulay filed the class-action suit against Google and YouTube this August. Knight and Dulay acknowledge that there is a financial ask attached to the legal action; it’s no secret that Google has deep pockets, thanks in no small part to contributions from YouTube’s vast network of content creators. It was, after all, the platform’s early LGBTQ2 adopters who helped make the platform what it is today. The audiences they built became a core demographic, immeasurably extending the site’s most critical commodity: its reach.
“My clients agreed to give up the property rights to their videos and allow Google to mine all the data that comes from individuals who engage with those videos,” says Peter Obstler, the lead attorney representing the YouTubers. “That’s worth millions and millions of dollars to Google and YouTube in return.” The site’s inability to maintain its promise of “viewpoint-neutral” content regulation isn’t just discriminatory, he says, but a breach of contract under California law.
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs say they’re not in this legal battle for the payout or a symbolic leveling of the financial playing field. “Our suit is for systemic change,” Dulay says.
“Our system takes into account multiple different factors [to tag graphic content],” a Google representative told Xtra. “Sometimes our system gets it wrong. Nothing in the policies as they’re written are targeted or apply to sexual orientation. That just isn’t the case. There’s nothing where we have a notion of sexual orientation. It’s some connection that might have happened over time. That is one of the [reasons] why we are constantly working to make sure the systems are better, that they are completely unbiased, but also why we get created the ability [for creators] to appeal [a restriction], which helps make our system better over time.”
YouTube has a monopoly on the kind of reach it can deliver for user-generated content. Until a better platform comes along to replace it, the site will continue to serve as a lifeline for members of marginalized communities who seek solace in finding common ground among others online—at least, so long as the site continues to allow it.
“We touch the community, and they communicate back with us directly,” Dulay says. “[We] communicate with places in the country or the world, where [LGBTQ2] people don’t have community or they don’t have access to the resources that we do, or if there is a community, it’s small. It’s not anything close to what we have in San Francisco. So, we share some of that community with them. They feel connected that way.”
Ross says that the implications of the lawsuit extend well beyond the experiences of the plaintiffs and other LGBTQ2 YouTubers. Disability rights content creators, for instance, have faced similar public battles against censorship and demonetization on the platform.
“We want change,” says Ross. “We’re hoping that this [lawsuit] is kind of a stepping stone for all the other communities getting demonetized to take a stand as well.”