PragerU’s videos are free of profanity, nudity and violence, but they keep landing on YouTube’s restricted list — including animated posts on five of the Ten Commandments — a pattern the right-tilting content provider blames squarely on political bias.
More than 200 PragerU videos have been placed on “restricted mode” by the Google-owned platform, touching off a legal battle with implications for Big Tech on the First Amendment, antitrust, and immunity from federal libel laws.
“It’s just gotten to the point of ridiculousness and absurdity,” said Craig Strazzeri, PragerU chief marketing officer. “The scary reality is Google and YouTube are so powerful, they can really do whatever they want. Today, they’re censoring conservatives, but tomorrow it could be someone else’s point of view.”
So far YouTube is prevailing — a federal judge dismissed PragerU’s complaint in March 2018 — but PragerU brought its appeal Tuesday before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, vowing to take the matter to the Supreme Court if necessary.
“To suggest that PragerU’s content is obscene, violent, hate speech is an absolute insult to the intelligence of the American public,” said PragerU attorney Peter Obstler outside the courthouse after oral argument.
He was surrounded by dozens of PragerU supporters holding signs with messages such as “Defend Free Speech,” “Big Tech: Don’t Be Evil” and “#StoptheBias.”
The world’s largest video-hosting platform, YouTube has insisted that its decisions on restricting content have no political agenda, pointing out that PragerU has thrived on the channel, reaching more than 2 million subscribers.
The company also argued that all PragerU videos are available to 98.5% of YouTube viewers, but that the other 1.5%, often churches, schools and libraries, have opted for “restricted mode” to screen out “mature content.”
“Google’s products are not politically biased,” a YouTube spokesperson said in an email. “We go to extraordinary lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in such a way that political leanings are not taken into account.”
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a Tuesday post that “preserving an open platform is more important than ever,” even as the channel wrestles with those who try to “cross the line” with its hate-speech policy and upcoming harassment policy.
“A commitment to openness is not easy. It sometimes means leaving up content that is outside the mainstream, controversial or even offensive,” said Ms. Wojcicki. “But I believe that hearing a broad range of perspectives ultimately makes us a stronger and more informed society, even if we disagree with some of those views.”
That 1.5% may sound like a small number, but given YouTube’s size, “that’s 28.5 million people a day,” said Mr. Obstler during oral argument.
Founded in 2009 by Los Angeles talk-show host Dennis Prager, PragerU has become a force on the right with its hundreds of five-minute animated videos on politics, history, religion, media and other topics, hosted by prominent conservatives and experts.
PragerU, which is not an academic institution, has filed lawsuits against YouTube in both federal court and California state court.
Its attorneys argue that online platforms like YouTube have assumed a government-like role by acting as public squares, and should therefore be subject to the First Amendment, which protects people from government censorship but not speech restrictions by private companies.
Clay Calvert, director of the First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, wasn’t bullish on PragerU’s argument.
“There’s no clear path for YouTube or Google to be deemed a government or state actor,” Mr. Calvert said. “I think a lot of people fear the power social media platforms have, and I think those fears are rightful. But that’s a very different question from whether or not the First Amendment comes into play. Typically, private entities do not trigger First Amendment concerns.”
That said, any day in which the PragerU allegations surface isn’t a good one for YouTube, given that they come as a reminder of Google’s unmatched market power at a time when Congress, the Justice Department and state attorneys general are closing in on the tech giants with antitrust probes.
Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, has called for imposing conditions on big tech’s exemption from publisher liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, accusing the biggest online platforms of abusing their immunity by exhibiting political bias.
“I think there’s a large appetite in Congress right now for rolling back Section 230 immunity,” Mr. Calvert said.
The PragerU case has also rallied conservatives long frustrated by what they see as political bias across the Big Tech industry.
PragerU attorney Eric George argued — in a PragerU video — that social media companies have stopped acting like neutral platforms and instead have behaved in the last few years like publishers.
“Social media giants want it both ways,” Mr. George said. “We’re fine if they’re a public forum or a publisher. But they can’t be both.”
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