Pluralistic: 10 Apr 2021

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Today's links

Youtube blocks advertisers from targeting "Black Lives Matter" (permalink)

For a Markup feature, Leon Yin and Aaron Sankin compiled a list of "social and racial justice terms" with help from Color of Change, Media Justice, Mijente and Muslim Advocates, then checked if YouTube would let them target those terms for ads.

The results are (initially, at least), quite shocking: Youtube bans advertisers from targeting videos using keywords like Black Lives Matter, Black power, reparations, colonialism, antifascist, American Muslim, and sex work.

Even worse: when the reporters asked Youtube for comment on these blocks, the company stonewalled them, and then added even more terms to the blocklist, including Black excellence, LGBTQ, antiracism, civil rights, Black is beautiful, abolish ICE, believe Black women, queer, Black trans lives matter, antiracism, Muslimfashion and many, many more. The full data-set is on Github:

As if that wasn't enough, there's the list of terms that Youtube does allow ad-targeting on, including white power, white lives matter, white power, etc.

The contradictions go further: you can advertise to "Christian parenting" and "Jewish parenting" but not "Muslim parenting." Racist terms like "white sharia" and "civilizational jihad" are in, too.

After Youtube was called for comment, they started blocking "Christian" and "Jewish" as prefixes on the same keywords that were blocked when associated with "Muslim."

Youtube's policies offer two explanations for this, the first ("[ads should] ads to reflect a user’s interests rather than more personal interpretations of their fundamental identity") is thoroughly unconvincing. It's literally nonsense.

The second, though ("[targeting categories could be] used to stigmatize an individual") is both hugely revealing and hugely incomplete, and therein lies the tale.

Youtube is caught in an unresolvable contradiction. On the one hand, you have the company's statement that "At YouTube, we believe Black lives matter and we all need to do more to dismantle systemic racism."

On the other hand, you have the platform's utility to reactionary, racist, genocidal and eugenic communities who are totally in opposition to Youtube's claimed support for racial justice.

Some of that is unwitting – the company can't possibly know what's in all the videos published on its platform – and some is deliberate: Youtube doesn't want to face the reputational, political and financial consequences of cutting off superstars like Prageru.

They know if that if they allow advertisers to target "Black Lives Matter," some of those ads will show up alongside of Prageru's racist video, "'Black Lives Matter' Is Not Helping Blacks."

That's the heart of the contradiction. Sometimes, Youtube wants us to think of its self-serve, algorithmic ad/publishing system as untouched by human hands, an interplay of pure math, initiated and steered by third parties whose choices are not Youtube's responsibility.

Other times, Youtube wants us to think of it as a corporate person, with identities and values, priorities and ethics. The selective demand that Youtube be considered a moral actor – but only for the outcomes that reflect well on the company – leads to this contradiction.

To be clear, I don't think there's any way Youtube could operate a self-serve ad platform or a self-serve video program that could proactively identify racist outcomes.

It's not enough to vet every ad to make sure it's not racist – they'd also have to vet every possible ad placement and make sure that it doesn't violate its ethics; that is, they'd have to use reliable human judgment to evaluate every single combination of ads and videos.

There isn't enough human judgement – let alone sound human judgement – in existence to cover that combinatorial explosion. What's more, Youtube is so consequential to our discourse that its errors would be – and are – hugely consequential as well.

That's why all this matters: Youtube's editorial choice has the foreseeable (and, evidently, acceptable to Youtube) outcome of producing an economic boycott of the creators it says it wants to uplift and support.

Youtube's monopolistic dominance has the effect of making its contradictions matters of civilizational importance.

It wants to be:

  • Imperfect
  • Moral

  • Neutral

  • Dominant


  • Forgiven

It can't have all of those. It just can't.

And to be perfectly honest, I don't know what I want it to do here. I mean, it could stop spinning idiotic tales about "[ads that] reflect a user’s interests rather than more personal interpretations of their fundamental identity," but that wouldn't fix things.

Likewise, it could ban the words "white" and "Christian" in association with all same the keywords it blocks in connection with "Black" and "Muslim," producing a kind of evenhanded idiocy, which is preferable to a biased idiocy.

And it could be more transparent in its "brand safety" tactics, and have some process for appealing bad choices, as Nandini Jammi – who cofounded Check My Ads – sensibly calls for. They should do this, but it still would leave the contradiction – and its consequences – intact.

Thinking about this stuff gives me a headache. On the other hand, it reminded me to order a copy of SILICON VALUES, the new book from my EFF colleague Jillian C York, who is far and away the content moderation expert I trust most in this world.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

Alibaba's record-setting antitrust smackdown (permalink)

China is in the midst of an antitrust surge, mustering the political will to do something that western governments are still flinching away from. This week, Alibaba was hit with a record-smashing $2.8b fine.

The fine was the result into anticompetitive conduct on Alibaba's part – conduct that forced small merchants to use its service in order to reach the market for their goods, allowing Alibaba to extract a tax on an appreciable slice of all ecommerce.

This wasn't just a matter of skimming rents from all transactions. Alibaba's power included the power to shape markets: to decide what would sell and what wouldn't, and to pick winners by and losers through the editorial decisions embedded in its search-result ordering.

All of this turned Alibaba into a shadow government, creating a private, unaccountable, opaque industrial policy that swayed what got produced and consumed. For the economic planners of China's economy, this represented the wrong kind of competition.

But as alarming as this kind of power is to central planners (and fans of central planning), it should also alarm opponents of central planning, the advocates for "market forces" as a means of determining economic and production outcomes.

Through acquisitions, lock-in and other anticompetitive tactics, Alibaba structured hundreds of markets for goods of all description, in China and abroad, setting prices and favoring some production techniques over others, on an arbitrary and self-preferencing basis.

It's quite an object lesson in the way that unregulated markets cease to be markets altogether, transforming themselves into planned economies whose architects are the board and executives of a few dominant firms.

Another interesting aspect of this affair is how Alibaba is dealing with it. US companies that face antitrust fines typically admit no guilt, insisting – even as they pay their fines – that they were done wrong. Not Alibaba.

"[Alibaba] accepts the penalty with sincerity…To serve its responsibility to society, Alibaba will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen its compliance systems and build on growth through innovation."

"Alibaba would not have achieved our growth without sound government regulation and service, and the critical oversight, tolerance and support from all of our constituencies have been crucial to our development. For this, we are full of gratitude and respect."

This is just the first whack that Chinese regulators are taking at the antitrust piñata, and they're promising to fine and smash any tech giant that is big enough to constitute its own form of private economic planning.

Antitrust in the West has been in a 40-year, Ronald-Reagan-designed doldrums, and it's just waking up, with the opening salvoes aimed at western Big Tech companies.

Big Tech is guilty of all the same sins as Chinese tech giants: structuring markets and extracting rent through App Stores, Amazon marketplace, Uber, Doordash, and all the other rentiers determined to skim 30% off of all commerce that involves the internet.

In their defense, these companies quietly insist that they have to maintain their scale and control if the west is to triumph in its existential war against Chinese tech. Sometimes, they say the quiet part aloud, as Zuckerberg did last summer:

It'll be interesting to see how they respond to China's moves. If China is so ultra-competent that it represents a threat to other countries, then what to make of the fact that the country sees domestic tech monopolies as a threat to its dominance?

If China believes that the best way to further its national interests is to shatter the corporate power of its domestic tech giants, then shouldn't we take our own tech giants' claims to "national champion" status with a boulder of salt?

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Stefan Jones’s guide to Vegas

#20yrsago Mastercard threatens rec.humor.funny over satire

#10yrsago Canadian Tories’ campaign pledge: We will spy on the Internet

#10yrsago Canada’s New Democratic Party promises national broadband and net neutrality

#5yrsago Boston Globe previews a front page from the Trump presidency

#1yrago Crisis makes heroes of IT workers

#1yrago Philips quadruples ventilator costs

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

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