YouTube Bans Videos That ‘Promote’ Gun Sales

Is Google acting as a good citizen here? Or abusing its market dominance?

Bloomberg Technology (“YouTube Bans Firearms Demo Videos, Entering the Gun Control Debate“):

YouTube, a popular media site for firearms enthusiasts, this week quietly introduced tighter restrictions on videos involving weapons, becoming the latest battleground in the U.S. gun-control debate.

YouTube will ban videos that promote or link to websites selling firearms and accessories, including bump stocks, which allow a semi-automatic rifle to fire faster. Additionally, YouTube said it will prohibit videos with instructions on how to assemble firearms. The video site, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, has faced intense criticism for hosting videos about guns, bombs and other deadly weapons.

For many gun-rights supporters, YouTube has been a haven. A current search on the site for “how to build a gun” yields 25 million results, though that includes items such as toys. At least one producer of gun videos saw its page suspended on Tuesday. Another channel opted to move its videos to an adult-content site, saying that will offer more freedom than YouTube.

“We routinely make updates and adjustments to our enforcement guidelines across all of our policies,” a YouTube spokeswoman said in a statement. “While we’ve long prohibited the sale of firearms, we recently notified creators of updates we will be making around content promoting the sale or manufacture of firearms and their accessories.”

YouTube has placed greater restrictions on content several times in the past year, responding to a series of issues with inappropriate and offensive videos. Most of those changes involved pulling ads from categories of videos. Google is more reluctant to remove entire videos from YouTube, but has been willing to do so with terrorism-related content.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry lobbying group, called YouTube’s new policy “worrisome.”

“We suspect it will be interpreted to block much more content than the stated goal of firearms and certain accessory sales,” the foundation said in a statement. “We see the real potential for the blocking of educational content that serves instructional, skill-building and even safety purposes. Much like Facebook, YouTube now acts as a virtual public square. The exercise of what amounts to censorship, then, can legitimately be viewed as the stifling of commercial free speech.”

Google is a private company and, like OTB, has the right to determine what content goes on its properties. At some level, as with OTB, those who don’t like Google’s site policies are free to go elsewhere.

Still, there comes a point when a company’s market share becomes so big that it becomes a virtual public utility. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and a handful of others are clearly there. Sure, there are other places to post videos online. But if you’re not on YouTube, you’re seriously handicapped.

On both liability and ethical grounds, I support Google keeping videos off of YouTube that instruct people on committing violent crimes. The free speech argument for how-to videos on bomb-making is awfully thin. Ditto instruction on converting legal weapons to illegal weapons, getting around background checks, and the like.

At the same time, YouTube is the go-to place for how-tos. If you want to figure out how to change the spark plugs on a ’73 Saab, patch a hole in your drywall, or get red wine stains out of your carpet, there are doubtless videos there to guide you. It’s not obvious to me why disassembling and cleaning a Mossberg shotgun, changing the grips on a Smith and Wesson revolver, or putting a new scope on a Winchester rifle should be banned.

Similarly, if they allow commercial videos offering products for sale—and they do—I’m not sure on what basis they get to exclude products they don’t happen to like. Certainly, Google’s banning an entire industry from their massive enterprise is a hell of a lot more impactful than a small-town bakery refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Guns and Gun Control, Media, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    I agree that this borders on the edge of the cake debate. Perhaps one vital difference is that guns themselves are different. Their purpose is to kill people. Sure, a very small percentage of guns are probably used for hunting, competitive target shooting, etc, but that’s not what the gun community is primarily about. It’s about how to prepare to kill people and how to kill them in the most effective way.




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  2. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Sure, a very small percentage of guns are probably used for hunting, competitive target shooting, etc, but that’s not what the gun community is primarily about. It’s about how to prepare to kill people and how to kill them in the most effective way.

    I don’t think that’s true at all.




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  3. Gustopher says:

    There’s a big difference between this and the gay wedding cakes — gun owners are not a protected class, and this country does not have a long, dark history of discrimination against gun owners.




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  4. drj says:

    […] if [Google] allow[s] commercial videos offering products for sale—and they do—I’m not sure on what basis they get to exclude products they don’t happen to like.

    It’s rather remarkable – perhaps revealing even – that you make this argument when it comes to guns, but not when it comes to, e.g., porn – which, of course, is also banned on YouTube.

    So what makes firearms so special that a third-party can’t put restrictions on their advertisement?

    Certainly, Google’s banning an entire industry from their massive enterprise is a hell of a lot more impactful than a small-town bakery refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

    The big difference, of course, is that it’s always been perfectly fine for firms to discriminate against certain product categories, but nowadays not against (close to) innate characteristics of their customers, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

    People, of course, deserve protection, products not so much.

    Still, there comes a point when a company’s market share becomes so big that it becomes a virtual public utility.

    That’s indeed a real risk. So perhaps Google’s parent company Alphabet ought to be broken up like AT&T? To me, that seems a much more sensible idea than to mandate a firm to show gun ads or how-tos.




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  5. Gustopher says:

    Still, there comes a point when a company’s market share becomes so big that it becomes a virtual public utility. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and a handful of others are clearly there.

    You’re beginning to sound like a raving liberal there, wanting more regulations of large corporations.

    It makes me uneasy having so much of our lives ceded over to large, multinational corporations that are answerable to no one, but I am a stark raving liberal.




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  6. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: Are you disagreeing with the premise that only a small number of guns are used for hunting? Or that the purpose of a gun is to kill people?




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  7. James Joyner says:

    @drj:

    It’s rather remarkable – perhaps revealing even – that you make this argument when it comes to guns, but not when it comes to, e.g., porn – which, of course, is also banned on YouTube.

    We’ve got a rather long history of restricting pornographic content in the public square.

    So perhaps Google’s parent company Alphabet ought to be broken up like AT&T? To me, that seems a much more sensible idea than to mandate a firm to show gun ads or how-tos.

    I’m not proposing a specific policy here but rather arguing that Google having this power is quite worrisome. But, frankly, even if we broke up Alphabet and it was just YouTube, with its dominance of the non-porn video space, it would still be worrisome.

    @Gustopher:

    You’re beginning to sound like a raving liberal there, wanting more regulations of large corporations.

    Concern over monopoly power while generally advocating for the advantages of a free market goes back to at least Adam Smith. But, again, I’m not necessarily arguing that YouTube ought be required to show gun videos; I’m noting that the ability to decide what content gets aired on the dominant video venue is a lot of power.

    @MarkedMan:

    Are you disagreeing with the premise that only a small number of guns are used for hunting? Or that the purpose of a gun is to kill people?

    Both. Certainly, more people hunt and target shoot than murder. And, while certain types of weapons—handguns and many “assault” weapons are clearly designed for self-protection and combat—most long rifles and shotguns are designed for sport.




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  8. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Good for Google.




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  9. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: Ever look at the gun section in magazines at Barnes and Noble? Damn few cover pictures of shotguns or deer. Unless you count “combat” or “tactical” shotguns.




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  10. gVOR08 says:

    Despite the Federalist Society opinion that they are people, large corporations do not have souls or consciences. Alphabet/You Tube, for whatever reasons, decided this stance would be good for their bottom line. Why do conservatives hate free enterprise?




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  11. R. Dave says:

    Many of the responses in this thread are a perfect example of something I find absolutely infuriating about political tribalism. Here we have a bunch of liberal commenters who have long believed and argued that excessive corporate size/power is dangerous and in need of regulation. Yet when circumstances have finally prompted their conservative interlocutor to become more open to their position, instead of building on that newfound common ground, they choose to instead puff themselves up and snark at him for alleged hypocrisy and/or his past failure to see the problem. What an utterly self-defeating approach that is! FFS, people, when your counterpart in a debate goes from a “no” to a “maybe”, you’re supposed to build on that to get to “yes”, not use it as an opportunity to bash him and drive him back to a “no”.




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  12. James Pearce says:

    Still, there comes a point when a company’s market share becomes so big that it becomes a virtual public utility. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and a handful of others are clearly there.

    Not even close.

    Well, Amazon is getting close, but with AWS, not their retail operation, which is just a really efficient non-specialized direct-sales outfit. Facebook and Twitter are cultural phenomena, likely to mean a lot to a particular generation, like MTV or Life Magazine. Even today, they are eminently avoidable. In the future, it will be more so. (Trump is going to single-handedly kill Twitter, and Zuck seems intent on doing the same to Facebook.)

    That said….

    I’m not concerned at all about Youtube banning these videos. Gun porn is a real thing. It’s not that different from real porn, and you don’t see that on Youtube either.




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  13. R. Dave says:

    @James Joyner wrote: We’ve got a rather long history of restricting pornographic content in the public square.

    That’s true, but to be sustainable, I think such a glaring inconsistency requires a principled defense rather than a simple appeal to tradition, and to be honest, I can’t really think of what principle that would be. Porn and guns (and media about guns) are both widely used and widely decried. Both can be plausibly claimed to cause harm on a societal level. Both can be plausibly claimed to enjoy Constitutional protection from governmental restrictions but not protection from private restrictions. Both are now being restricted by a private actor. And so on and so forth. I can’t really find a principled distinction beyond the foundational “guns are just wrong” or “porn is just wrong” arguments.




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  14. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    Both. Certainly, more people hunt and target shoot than murder.

    Murder and target shooting are not the only choices for owning a gun. A significant majority of gun purchases in the US fall into the self defense category.* The way to defend yourself with a gun is to kill someone or credibly threaten to kill someone. These types of guns are designed to kill people. I don’t see how you can argue that.

    *It’s hard to get good statistics from an internet search (Thanks NRA and Republicans) but it seems that over half of the guns in the US are handguns, perhaps well over half. The vast, vast majority of these are obtained for self defense. Of the remaining, it seems about 75% are rifles, with about half of those being military style, and 25% are shotguns. Even if we take all the non-military style rifles and shotguns as hunting (dubious). Something like 2/3 of the guns in the United States were purchased for self defense.




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  15. James Joyner says:

    @R. Dave: Yes. Further, just looking at the Related Posts in the sidebar, I’ve been making variants of this argument about the power of Google and its YouTube subsidiary for at least a decade.




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  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    At least this demonstrates how phony much of the “Net Neutrality” debate was.

    The John Olivers of the world are actually quite happy to have corporations deciding what people are and aren’t allowed to have access to on the internet, so long as it’s people like them are in control.




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  17. MarkedMan says:

    @R. Dave:

    snark at him for alleged hypocrisy

    Just in case you are including me in that quote, note that my comment started out by saying that I agreed that this is a difficult area. I pointed out a way that it could be different from other products, and maybe I should have been more clear that even despite the difference I outlined, I still think James is right and it falls into a difficult area, one worth talking through. Now admittedly, I’m getting sidetracked into a discussion about the reason that people own guns, but even that is crucial to the debate. You can buy a baseball bat to hit a ball, or you can buy a baseball bat to beat someone to death. The numbers are incredibly skewed towards peaceable use and it would be ridiculous for youtube to ban bat related materials based on the small percentage that are bought with violent intent. But you don’t buy a nail studded baseball bat for anything other than to kill someone or threaten to kill someone and youtube would be well within their safe zone to ban videos on how to make nail studded baseball bats.




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  18. JohnMcC says:

    @R. Dave: Well, this particular commenter is someone who most would call ‘liberal’. And my first thought was pretty much on the line suggested above – that Google made a business decision and it has political connotations and isn’t that interesting.

    I just hope that ‘fast lap at nurburgring’ is not censored by some future safe-vehicle morality crusade.




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  19. James Pearce says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    At least this demonstrates how phony much of the “Net Neutrality” debate was.

    Actually, this comment demonstrates just how much the “Net Neutrality” debate is misunderstood. It may be too technical to explain so I won’t even try, but Net neutrality is about ISPs throttling content providers (Netflix) in favor of other content providers (Comcast-owned NBC), not content providers curating their own content.




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  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Pearce:

    Actually, this comment demonstrates just how much the “Net Neutrality” debate is misunderstood.

    Disagreeing with something doesn’t mean you don’t understand it. I know that Net Neutrality is not about content providers curating their own content. That’s precisely my problem. As long as Google abusing its market dominance to limit content creators is treated as fundamentally different from Comcast abusing its market dominance to limit content creators, it’s really just an argument over which set of giant corporations should be the internet’s gatekeepers.

    And that doesn’t really matter because in the end it means there’s still a giant corporate gatekeeper.




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  21. KM says:

    @@R. Dave:

    I can’t really find a principled distinction beyond the foundational “guns are just wrong” or “porn is just wrong” arguments.

    Flip the script: what foundational argument can you cite that Youtube poster has the right to do whatever the hell they want on Youtube’s platform other then plain ole free speech? Like it or not, free speech does have limits . One of them is if you use a public platform or comment section, you are subject to the rules of that forum. If Youtube wants to prohibit violence, sex, drug use, property content, etc in the videos, most people would accept those limitations of their free speech as part and parcel of using the service. They willing curtail their 1A rights to watch stupid cat videos and don’t really care.

    So again, what makes guns so special that people are suddenly up in arms? Why is this one restriction too far other then it’s a personal pet peeve of theirs?




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  22. KM says:

    @MarkedMan:
    My argument in the whole cake debate was the “artistry” and “religious freedom” angles were BS and paper-thin BS at that. I would much prefer them to be honest and admit they are using their religion selectively to deliberate single out gays as “sinners” to deny services while allowing other “sinners” free reign. They clearly like “sinner” money but still want to be judgmental. The comparable action here would be to ban gun vids but allow flamethrower, bomb-making, tank and other “weaponry” selling and assembly vids. In other words, if Youtube was singling out gun videos as “dangerous” or “immoral” but allowing similar “immoral” vids to exist then they’d be hypocritical and deserve criticism.

    Youtube is trying to ban what it’s see as a potential danger or problem to their bottom line. Frankly, you don’t have the right to use Youtube to promote sales – you pay for that and it’s called an ad. You don’t have the right to use Youtube to teach people a certain skill, especially if that skill is something of a dangerous nature like creating 3-d guns or bomb assembly. Pay for your own damn site and host all the videos you want. And that’s the real issue here: these places would have to PAY to host this content and spread it via word of mouth or other means that will cost them. As always, it’s not about “freedom of speech” but rather “freedom of the wallet”.




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  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @KM:

    Pay for your own damn site and host all the videos you want.

    Network Effect




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  24. KM says:

    Now that I think about it, what’s to stop gun enthusiasts or the NRA from starting their own GunTube website? They’d make money off the adverting of local mom and pop gun shops and they could host whatever they hell they wanted. Places like the Federalist or FOX could push it as “conservative-friendly”.

    This seems like a lost money-making opportunity here – wonder why nobody’s picked up on it other then the liability issues?




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  25. MarkedMan says:

    @KM:

    Like it or not, free speech does have limits . One of them is if you use a public platform or comment section, you are subject to the rules of that forum.

    There’s case laws that speaks to this. The lawyers here probably can remember better than me, but there were a number of cases in the 70’s or 80’s that had to do with whether places like shopping malls and airports could be considered public squares or whether they were private property. If I remember correctly, the public square side won out, and we had a few years where all kinds of groups set up tables in airports and malls.

    (Not sure where all those tables have gone to now, but admit to being glad the “Fusion Energy” cranks aren’t around anymore. Didn’t they turn out to be LaRouchites?)




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  26. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t think that’s true at all.

    Who the heck is down voting James (or anyone else) simply because he disagrees with a post? What’s that about?




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  27. James Pearce says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    As long as Google abusing its market dominance to limit content creators is treated as fundamentally different from Comcast abusing its market dominance to limit content creators

    Having terms of service that restricts certain types of controversial content is not “abusing its market dominance;” it’s “best practice.”

    And it has nothing whatsoever to do with net neutrality.




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  28. JKB says:

    This has some benefit. There is a lot of advertising dollars that targets the viewers of shooting/gun content. Sport[people] have a good amount of disposable income and aren’t afraid to spend it not only on guns, but all the outdoors/hunting stuff that has a high mark up. As such, banning this type of content has a good chance of being the base load a competitor to Youtube needs to reach sustainability. A separate platform from Youtube would be good. Competition is good.

    And nothing stops the current Youtube producers from posting to other platforms other than ROI for dealing with upload issues.




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  29. de stijl says:

    YouTube restricts / prohibits all sorts of videos of legal things: pro-Ana, self-harm, Holocaust denial, etc.

    They also demonitize content that includes strong violence, language, sexual content, and “controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown” (from Wiki).

    @KM:

    Now that I think about it, what’s to stop gun enthusiasts or the NRA from starting their own GunTube website?

    Some gun vloggers are switching over to PornHub instead.




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  30. Gustopher says:

    Similarly, if they allow commercial videos offering products for sale—and they do—I’m not sure on what basis they get to exclude products they don’t happen to like.

    The fact that they don’t happen to like it is reason enough.

    I do think it is troubling that Alphabet and Facebook can control what information people have easy access to. Google delisted sites for editorial reasons (all of the scummy “we publish arrest reports online, but if you pay us we will stop” sites were dumped). A shocking percentage of people get their news from Facebook. YouTube is now cutting gun porn.

    The amount of control in the hands of a few people is incredibly high, and I think we should have more regulation — to move the power from a few private individuals to a government that is at least ostensibly answerable to the people.

    I support the EUs Right To Be Forgotten, and the burdens it places on internet services operating there. That’s the people setting community standards, and forcing the companies to accept them. That’s a good thing.




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  31. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    I support the EUs Right To Be Forgotten

    We can set up a US Department of Truth to administer it.




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  32. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @KM:

    Whether or not someone is allowed to post this thing or that thing on a privately owned website has zero – 1000% absolutely nothing – to do with the 1st Amendment. The constitution isn’t implicated here at all.

    This was a business decision. Consumers are free to react to it as they choose, but they had no right in the first place to post whatever they like on somebody else’s private real estate to abrogate.

    People should feel free to immediately and entirely remove any mention of freedom of speech from this thread. It has no place in the discussion.




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  33. teve tory says:

    I used to have a nice small free PC app called YTD that downloaded YouTube files. They “Updated” it, and broke half the features, like downloading playlists, to make you buy the $$ version. Old versions of the software will no longer work.

    Grrr.

    Now I’ve tried 3 downloads, 2 online converters, and a chrome app and they were all scamware garbage. Grr. TubeMate is really good on Android, but the android emulator i DLed isn’t installing correctly. Shitty software frustrates the fuck out of me.




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