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If any reporters are reading this (and I know you do), YouTube's banning of Nick Gisburne is a great story that, amazingly, doesn't seem to have yet appeared in a major publication. The story is developing new wrinkles every day,...

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February 27, 2007

The Nick Gisburne story

If any reporters are reading this (and I know you do), YouTube's banning of Nick Gisburne is a great story that, amazingly, doesn't seem to have yet appeared in a major publication. The story is developing new wrinkles every day, and is reaching the point that it requires a journalist who carries some weight to insist on getting straight answers out of YouTube, which seems to be blowing smoke up everyone's ass at present. You should run with this story.

Short version: Popular video blogger Nick Gisburne uploaded to YouTube a video made up of selected quotations from the Koran, in order to demonstrate what he felt was an undercurrent of violence in Islam. Unidentified users complained to YouTube about the video. In response, YouTube deleted the Koran video and banned Gisburne from the site.

Why? In YouTube's own words to Gisburne:

After being flagged by members of the YouTube community and reviewed by YouTube staff, the video below has been removed due to its inappropriate nature.

"Islamic Teachings: Cruelty From The Qur'an"

YouTube needs to be called on the carpet for this. The company's behavior demands an explanation. And this one on their official blog ain't cutting it:

There's been a bit of buzzing on the blogs today with people suggesting that we've taken down a video because we didn't agree with the point of view of its content. This simply isn't true.

YouTube is spinning to try to distract from the issue. People suspect that YouTube buckled under pressure without good reason, not that YouTube itself is an ayatollah with a grudge. (See why the talents of a good reporter are needed here?)

Unfortunately, we're partially to blame for the confusion because a user was accidentally sent a generic message about inappropriate content instead of the appropriate copyright notice.

After telling Nick Gisburne that users complained about his video so YouTube removed it, YouTube then says that original explanation was an "accident" and that it was a copyright-violation issue all along.

But this "accident" seems unlikely to me for three reasons:

1. The "accident" happened twice. After being banned, Gisburne tried creating a new account again, uploaded the same video and received the exact same notice about user complaints and "inappropriate content," with nothing about copyright infringement. The same "accident" twice? I think I smell something.

2. The copyright excuse came up late in the game. YouTube put forth the "copyright infringement" story only after Gisburne's ordeal started getting play at popular sites like Slashdot.

3. YouTube does not identify the infringed party. I have personally received a copyright-infringement notice from YouTube. They look like this. (Yes, the notice really was for a mash-up video I made that was part of Stephen Colbert's "Green Screen Challenge," for which Colbert asked people to use "Colbert Report" footage; my video was here.) These notices from YouTube typically follow an official DMCA takedown notice from the infringed party. But YouTube has not identified who exactly said its copyrights were infringed by the Koran video. YouTube needs to demonstrate that it received a takedown notice from this Mysterious Copyright Owner -- and received it before it banned Nick Gisburne. Because it seems really likely that YouTube did not receive any DMCA takedown notice at all. (The unidentified copyrighted material in question may be a piece of background music. But who knows? YouTube has elected to be mysterious about it.)

So, what really happened?

Here's one possible scenario that explains YouTube's behavior and also aligns with the facts: YouTube has a complaint system that is vulnerable to manipulation. They do not actually watch the videos they deem "inappropriate" enough to delete -- they just delete one when the number of complaints reaches a certain threshold. But YouTube is embarrassed to admit that its system results in YouTube's de facto buckling to such easily manufactured pressure, so it invented the copyright-infringement claim late in the game, hoping that nobody would follow up and insist on seeing the evidence.

If my hypothetical scenario is accurate, it means more than that YouTube owes Nick Gisburne an apology. It means that YouTube may become increasingly useless as a place for conversation about serious topics. It will be just too easy for a small group of offended cranks to game the system and shut down whatever speech they don't like.

Bottom line: YouTube did a really stupid thing, and it matters.

This could be your story...