In the video posted on YouTube, former Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz is his usual lively and opinionated self in a five-minute lecture on the history of Israel.
Yet the popular Internet service has restricted access to the Dershowitz video, on the grounds it may not be suitable for children and other sensitive viewers. The video was published on a YouTube channel called Prager University, run by a conservative talk show host who said the service is blocking many similar talks by prominent intellectuals and media personalities.
The videos will not play when viewers have activated the YouTube setting, “restricted mode,” which is used to block possibly offensive content, such as sex, vulgar words or intense violence. How the Dershowitz video got blocked is unclear, as it does not contain violence or swear words. Other restricted Prager University videos feature former Harvard Kennedy School fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and comedian Adam Carolla.
But the talk show host, Dennis Prager, said the explanation seems clear: Alphabet Inc., the giant Internet conglomerate that owns Google and YouTube, is actively attempting to suppress conservative viewpoints.
“Given no rational response for the restrictions, there seems to be little reason to suspect anything other than suppression of conservative thought,”said Prager.
YouTube said its restrictions are applied by computers, not humans with a political bias. And a statement from Google added that some of the restricted videos included sensitive topics such as rape and terrorism, and therefore may not be suitable for all audiences. However, a YouTube search turned up other videos on the same topics that are not blocked in restricted mode.
Dershowitz, for his part, does not believe YouTube deliberately censored him, but rather its filters somehow tripped up.
“I can’t believe that Google would actually censor a pro-Israel speech by me, when it has so much anti-Israel stuff all over its platform,” said Dershowitz. “It has to be a mistake ... I’ve been doing this for 50 years and this is the first time in America that my views have been restricted,” he said.
The YouTube incident is one several recent allegations that major Internet companies are deliberately censoring right-of-center online activities. In May, Facebook was accused of slanting the news headlines that appear in its Trending Topics feature to suppress news from conservative media outlets. In addition, Twitter has been charged with banning conservative users for posting hateful online comments, while tolerating equally hostile language from people with left-wing views.
On Thursday, Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said YouTube had placed viewing restrictions on a number of her videos in which she criticizes feminism. One of the restricted videos, for example, is “Are Men Obsolete?” which praises innate differences between men and women.
The Prager YouTube channel features about 150 videos, each about five minutes long. All can be seen if viewers do not turn on “restricted mode.” The videos are mini-lectures on topics from feminism to religion to foreign policy, presented from a conservative point of view. Prager said the videos collectively have been viewed 120 million times in 2016 alone. The speakers in each lecture are spirited, but temperate in tone; there are no raised voices or swear words, though Carolla’s video contains the word “crap.”
Prager said that he spent months pressing YouTube and Google to explain the restrictions and have them lifted. The company did restore full access to some of the videos, although not Dershowitz’s, but then added others to the restricted list.
Prager said he received an e-mail response from YouTube that said, “this is working as intended according to the nature of restricted mode function ... We aim to apply the same standards to everyone and we don’t censor anyone. Often it’s not the right approach to say that videos with the same topic should get the same rating. We’ll need to take into consideration what the intent of the video is, what the focus of the video is, what the surrounding metadata of the video explains.”
It is possible that YouTube viewers themselves are to blame. Viewers are allowed to “flag” videos they deem inappropriate and YouTube said its staff reviews them “to determine whether they violate Community Guidelines.” This implies that humans rather than computers can decide to restrict access to some videos. The company would not provide more details on how its system works.
A YouTube spokesperson said the use of the word “crap” in Carolla’s video, along with other aspects of the video he did not describe, might result in an access restriction. Such decisions, the spokesperson said, were made by YouTube computers that analyze millions of videos using complex algorithms that identify a variety of factors that might justify a restriction.
Facebook also said it uses computers rather than people to make editorial decisions, to avoid human biases. But humans must program the computers, and the companies have not disclosed the guidelines they use to tell computers when to restrict content.
However, in May, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg met with prominent conservatives to assure them that his company won’t serve up biased information. The next month Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt said publicly his company is strictly nonpartisan.
“We always had policy that the company does not have a policy in these areas,” he said.
Some conservatives are pushing back. A Donald Trump supporter has launched a Twitter rival called Gab, that will tolerate any speech so long as it doesn’t incite criminal conduct. Entrepreneurs in Texas started a social network called Codias, explicitly aimed at conservatives who feel slighted by Facebook.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.