Youtube, Monopolies and the Rule of Law

Daniel Priestley - Writer and Editor

Most people who regularly use the platform will be aware of the constant criticism of Youtube and their practices. Across the last few years, waves of criticism have come from all corners of the Youtube community, with creators who make their living off the platform offering up damning judgment of it’s actions. In the last few years there has been the attempted integration with Google+, the so called Adpocalypse, suspicions about the in built bias of the trending page, constant unannounced tweaking of the algorithm and more recently the experiments with the subscription feed.

I think it’s fair to say that no other company attracts criticism for its decisions in the same way and people seem to want YouTube to act in accordance with different standards. So why is this request a natural and logical reaction to the website, as opposed to a random misguided response to the business practices of a company that is merely seeking profit?

Youtube as a Monopoly

Advocates for capitalism (defined as a system based on the accumulation of profit by individuals and companies) argue that society thrives on the basis of competition. For e
xample, if I set up an apple shop I will want to make my apples as delicious and as inexpensive as possible to ensure my customers do not purchase their apples from an alternative vendor. This motivates everyone to make the system of apple production as cost effective as possible whilst creating the highest quality apples therefore guaranteeing the best possible society. If I start engaging in unfair business practice or serving up mouldy apples, consumers will have an alternative source of apples in the form of all the other apple shops.
However, arguably the system seems to break when a company has complete control of a certain sector. Take for example the water industry in the UK. Each house only has one choice for a water provider who they can either pay or have no water. This is because it would be wholly impractical to have many different companies tearing up the roads and constantly running multiple water pipes to homes. This lacks the core advantage of capitalism which is the competition and choice of the consumer. It can and would lead to issues such as vastly unfair prices without the state regulation offered by Ofwat. The term for companies like this which have complete or dominant control of a market is a monopoly. Legal and economic definitions of non-natural monopolies tend to exist at around 25% for the purposes of preventing mergers.

Youtube shares the trait of water companies in the way that the service it provides lacks true competition. There is no real Youtube competitor who can offer either the users or creators on the platform a satisfactory alternative. In November 2016, a study of the leading multimedia websites in the United States based on market share of visits gave youtube a share of 78.8% with its closest competitor being Netflix on 8%. Services that allow any creator to upload to a platform other than youtube all had less than 1% of the market share. This therefore means that people tend to have to accept any changes they disagree with so if, for example, youtube removed the subscription feed, creators may get annoyed but they would be unlikely to move to another platform because there is no viable alternative. This increases the severity of anger towards Youtube, as people cannot just switch to an alternative provider so their only option is to vent at the company in the hope of change.

The Youtube as a monopoly argument has been made before but in reality it goes further than just being a monopoly. The reason people are so averse to YouTube is that due to being a monopoly and having a lack of competitor, it acts more like a state than a private company in many ways.

YouTube as a State

The Oxford English dictionary defines a state as a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government. This portrays a state as an entity with two parts - a nation and then a government attached to the nation.

A nation is essentially a collection of people bound together by a shared identity whether this is through a common language, religion, history or merely occupying the same geographical area. Language and religion however aren’t crucial factors - there are many countries with the same language that identify as different nations and the UK doesn’t divide itself into nations of catholics, protestants and atheists etc. The crucial aspect is the common history and tradition that binds together all the members of the nation and this is something that I believe can be seen within the users of youtube. Within youtube there are plenty of subcultures of gamers, drama channels, reaction channels etc and all together there is always a shared identity between everyone involved. The feedback systems of subscriptions, ratings and comment sections only serve to further this cultural link between people scattered all across the world. Obviously this shared sense of identity is likely weaker than that of a standard nation but it’s hard to argue that it does not exist. When youtube acts in a way people are unhappy with, it is not just the damaging of a product, it is offending the core of a community.

The second part of the Youtube state, a government attached to the nation, is much clearer. A government is the group of people with the authority to make decisions within the state. This means that anyone involved in making decisions within the company of Youtube is essentially a part of the Youtube government. What’s more interesting is the source of authority for this government. Because Youtube is a company the authority of the people making the decisions traces back to the original creators of Youtube. When the founding fathers of the website launched it in February 2005, they began a chain of the passing down of authority which continued with Google’s management of the company following it’s purchase in November 2006. This is more like the passing down of power in a dictatorship than in a democratic state, possibly serving as a source of the constant backlash against Youtube. Usually the feeling of democratisation would come from the ability of the community to switch to a different platform but due to it’s monopolous nature, this option is unavailable.

The Rule of Law and How Youtube can be Better

Youtube is not going to democratise the way they run their company. There will be no elections between users of the platform for the next CEO because at the end of the day they are a profit machine not an actual state. So what value can be derived from the comparison with the state.

In Public Law (the law of how systems governments should and could run) there is a principle known as the rule of law. This principle can be applied to all states, democratic or dictatorship, and serves as a rule book for how laws should be made and introduced. For those more informed on the topic, we will be focusing merely on the formal conception of the rule of law as espoused by Joseph Raz. He believes that there are eight key principles that a state must follow to allow a fair application of law. These principles can be applied to Youtube as a guide for how they should run their company. They are:

1) All laws should be prospective, open and clear - This means that youtube should no longer retrospectively demonetise videos that were considered acceptable at the time. They also need to be clear about the meaning of all community guidelines.
2) Laws should be relatively stable - Sudden changes will not make the people happy, to keep the website stable the rules should be the same
3) Clear rules and procedures for making laws - Youtube need to make it clear to both their creators and their users when they are experimenting with systems, be it the algorithm or the subscription feed, not just continue their current practice of hoping no one notices
4) Independence of the judiciary must be guaranteed
5) The courts should have review powers over legislation
6) The courts should be easily accessible
7) The principles of natural justice must be observed
These four principles all surround the appeal process against laws. This can be applied to the appeal process in regards to the demonetization of videos on the grounds of the community guidelines, the process should be easy, and independent.
8) The discretion of the crime-preventing agencies should not be allowed to pervert the law - The rules need to apply to everyone equally, in the words of Lord Denning “be you ever so high, the law is higher”

Following these principles, Youtube would become a more harmonious place with less criticism from it’s own community. This wouldn’t fix all the problems of Youtube because at the end of the day they are a company on the search for profit, there is no way you can make them not bend to the will of advertisers, but it would keep everyone in a place of understanding and give a level of respect for the right to make informed choices within a system.

- Photo Credit - Christian Wiediger -


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