Commentary

Trevor Noah's Attack On Free Speech

Photo Credit: Steven Rosenbaum@MagnifyMedia

This is one of those stories that starts as a weird mistake, then evolves into a real screw-up, and ends as a looming threat to freedom and journalism. The trip is surprisingly short.

It begins with my argument with 4noahyou@gmail.com. Let me be clear — that could be a robot, an offshore troll, a Viacom content farm, or Trevor Noah's personal email. I have no idea since 4noah doesn't respond.

But I've gotten ahead of myself.

Last week, I was invited by the head of YouTube public relations to attend the company’s annual event, Brandcast. I arrived at Radio City Music Hall with 4,000 advertisers, agency people, journalists, and a few hundred fans. It was a good show, and I wrote about it here.

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I recorded a video clip of of the Comedy Central host Trevor Noah giving what was a sharp and funny rebuke of President Trump. It was a rare political moment for the otherwise pretty middle-of-the-road event. I filed my story and went to bed.

When the email came from YouTube notifying me that my Trevor Noah video had been taken down for "copyright violations,”  I have to admit, I laughed out loud. I was sure it was some robot run amok.

I dashed off an email to YouTube PR. They agreed I'd been invited to cover the event, and Noah had been invited to promote YouTube. Covering him was part of the deal.

Then I pinged the email address that had issued the takedown: 4noahyou@gmail.com.

Over the next four days, I pinged it twice. YouTube PR wasn't able to get the video back up, either. They advised me to file a counterclaim through their automated system. I posted a tweet to Noah on Twitter. Then I called Comedy Central PR. They seemed baffled and annoyed.

YouTube's copyright system works like this: If you claim a video infringes on your copyright, YouTube sides with the accuser and removes the video. Then, it's up to the accused (me) to fight it, file a counterclaim, and wait for weeks while the accuser gets to decide if they want to back down.

Meanwhile, my YouTube account gets a "Copyright Strike" and a severe warning. The best way to avoid “strikes” is to not upload “copyrighted” material.

Ok, sure. But, as there were 4,000 people in the room, most with camera phones, and hundreds of journalists, how exactly is this a copyright violation?

“This incident demonstrates the problem with automated takedowns, which often effectively exercise private censorship” says Patricia Aufderheide, professor at the School of Communications at American University and the coauthor of “Reclaiming Fair Use.” “People who are legitimately employing their fair use rights can find themselves frustrated and even intimidated.”


As a journalist on deadline trying to publish something relevant and timely, what should I have done? Did I need to get the permission of each presenter on stage directly? Does my claim of fair use, as a journalist working in the news business, give me the right to publish without fear of “strikes” or restraint?

And does YouTube's copyright notice and takedown system end up siding with those who aim to silence free speech?

Here's what's so disturbing about this. Trevor Noah says things about Trump on TV every day. I wasn't exposing any secret or controversial bit of spoken word comedy. And YouTube absolutely wanted the event covered — that's why I was invited. No one, not Comedy Central, not YouTube — and, I suspect, Noah himself — knows why this was taken down.

The YouTube system will make the clip live again in three months if the claimant doesn't respond. But for reporters, three months is a lifetime.

“In case of timely journalism, free speech delayed is free speech denied,” says Aufderheide

Automatic takedowns of timely, relevant, and even controversial news, amounts to a system that biases itself in favor of prior restraint, making the journalist guilty until proven innocent — or irrelevant.  It's time to put these systems and robots back in the box they came from.

Hey, 4noahyou@gmail.com, I'm waiting to hear from you.

3 comments about "Trevor Noah's Attack On Free Speech".
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  1. Tony Reynolds from A KickIn Crowd, May 15, 2018 at 4:51 a.m.

    Steven, based on my own personal experience, he probably didn't know. I have experienced something similarly non-sensical, so I get the frustration you must feel.

    I guess what puzzles me about your experience, was why the PR of YouTube did not step up their game to prevent this from getting to a point where they, and Trevor are publicly put on blast?

    My experience was releasing a song via a record imprint I own, Modern Touch Music, which is distributed by SONY.  I owned the rights, publishing 100%, and put it up on SoundCloud. Once up, I put out press releases using that link.

    The next day, I awoke to find a "Copyright violation takedown notice."

    Therefore now I have press release, which you cannot retrieve, with a bad link indicating I had violated a copyright! Who will play that song or do that story now? ouch

    Okay, so I contacted them and found I had to make a copyright counterclaim against...you guessed it....myself! Yes my Modern Touch Music had issued a copyright violation. (it was a copyright bot)

    No prob, I know the founder of  Modern Touch Music. After going online to allow the recording, it never happened. It was stuck in some loop.

    Long story short, I had put the song up in demo form on another SoundCloud ID, where it resides today! LOL. Luckily the bot had missed doing what it was actually supposed to be doing and never took down the real illegal version.

    Sounds like the YouTube PR peeps dropped the ball on that one, but with this technology in place, you never know.

    Good luck!

  2. Steve Rosenbaum from MagnifyMedia, May 16, 2018 at 10:12 a.m.

    Hey Tony, I feel your pain. I had a very similar experience with a film of mine a few years back. A distributor, whose rights to my film had expired,  sent a takedown notice when I used a clip from my film online. I had to get them to revoke it - even though it was my film. But that was a robot run amok. This is a human (it says "Manual" in the takedown notification). So whomever 4NoahYou@gmail.com is, they're the one deciding what journalists can post. So, the investigation continues! 

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 16, 2018 at 11:24 a.m.

    Obviously, utube doesn't care to fix the problem. It is not profitable for them to do so.

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