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Don't overREACT: YouTube and Net Neutrality

Here we go again! Sharpen your pitchforks and light up your torches: the owners of an “Internet company” demonstrated poor judgment by attempting to trademark something related to their core business. Find them, burn their bodies and spread their ashes all over the cloud! The simple fact that company executives tried to discuss business directly with their target audience is distasteful, arrogant, and subject to contempt.

Only three days after their original announcement, the Internet had reached a consensus: the new Sith Lords of YouTube had to be punished. Many people took this very seriously and concrete results can already be observed. If everything goes as planned, the Fine Bros may lose an important part of their fan base and see their enterprise completely destroyed in a matter of months. Every day now, thousands of people are encouraged to unsubscribe from these channels and post negative comments (to put it mildly) about their creators. Haven’t heard about it all? You’re about to.

Part I: The Scandal

If you knew nothing about the Fine Brothers before now, don’t worry, you’re not alone. With more than 4 billion views on YouTube in the past 8 years, chances are though that you’ve already seen some of their work. To quickly sum things up, they are two guys in their thirties who’ve spent most of their adult life creating videos to entertain people on the web. They are the creators of several successful series distributed over various YouTube channels. For example, in React you can see different people “react” to various videos, game events, and so forth.

What’s the big deal with these YouTube celebrities you may ask? Well, on January 26th, they announced a plan to launch a licensing program for their “react formats”, something that was instantly denounced for many good reasons. A lot has already been written and said on that subject, there’s no need for me to repeat more of the same. Suffice it to say that the big change the Fine Bros were looking for didn’t happen quite as expected.

Last morning (barely a week after the original announcement), every reference to the new licensing program was deleted from their official pages and channels. For all intents and purposes, it is as if this program never existed in the first place (that is, of course, if you ignore the thousands of new “react to react” videos that will be permanently associated with this abysmal failure). As far as freedom to create is concerned this is a victory, but the way it happened is disturbing. It is simply not OK to crucify people publicly for such trivial matters, especially when the real problem escaped most protesters.

Part II: The Issue

Forget about those Teen React videos for a minute and think about the real issues here: was it just about revenue? Shady business practices? Bad people wanting to control the interweb? If you listen to the many YouTubers who commented on the subject, one word tends to be repeated: Content-ID. This is basically a way for Google to automatically flag a video that is supposed to belong to somebody else so that the original owner may decide to earn money from it or simply block the derivative work from YouTube altogether.

The Content-ID system has been heavily criticized since its introduction. It has been used again and again to discriminate between various content creators and is an effective tool against what’s generally called fair-use. The fact is: Google is not interested in working on a case-by-case scenario when possible copyright infringement is detected on their video servers. They flag, report and block without appeal. Although trademarks and copyrights are two different things, chances are that as time passes by, trademark issues will be considered more and more seriously on YouTube’s ever-growing platform.

Trademark infringement claims are what scared content creators the most when the Fine Brothers announced their plans, and rightly so. In anticipation of the new React World platform, YouTube put a worldwide block on many videos containing the now trademarked “Elders React” and “Kids React” keywords. Think about what this site may look like if any of the words registered at the US Patent and Trademark Office suddenly became unusable without some sort of compensation to a third-party. We’re used to associate the cloud with data centers and companies residing in the United States. This is wrong on many levels and the USPTO does not govern the whole planet. The React issue was never about trademarks.

Part III: Go Speed Racer Go!

Let’s say the Fine Bros did get what they wanted (again, no need to get too emotional about it). Let’s assume that it all “changed the way things were done” and fast forward to 2017 and beyond. As the Traditional Media continues to struggle to stay relevant and profitable, YouTube channels get increasingly hammered by copyright and trademark claims they can’t defend against. Content creators get annoyed, leave the ship and start uploading videos on a different site subject to different countries’ laws. American copyrights & trademarks wouldn’t be a problem anymore but then again, I strongly believe this is not the war we should be fighting.

Remember all these talks about Net Neutrality and a multi-tiered Internet? Even in the worst scenario imaginable where YouTube becomes a completely locked down platform dedicated to higher commercial purposes, alternatives exist. YouTube moderators block videos when “content owners” ask them to, Uncle Sam and its pet eagle are not part of the equation. Independent distributors can decide to move to whatever platform suits their needs and their viewers will follow them. This, is what really balances things out for YouTube and its stars. This, is why Internet Service Providers cannot be allowed to distinguish between friends and foes. A deal with YouTube will ultimately mean an extra charge on your bill when visiting competing video sites. When this happens, be sure to prepare a big bowl of popcorn for your next Kardashians React marathon.

You’ve probably heard about Internet fast lanes before: in America and in Europe, big Internet Service Providers are trying to convince their clients that it’s in their best interest to change the way they connect to the Internet. In places like India, initiatives such as Facebook’s Free Basics even aim to create a tightly controlled Internet for most of the population, right from the start. Your ISP won’t “block” any site per se, they’ll simply offer a faster way to connect to specialized services such as Netflix and YouTube. Want to connect to another video provider? No problem. Just make sure you don’t go over your monthly data allowance if you’re watching “premium HD”. Stick to pre-approved services that have a “fast lane” agreement with your ISP and you won’t have to worry about any of that. Sounds great, right?...

Europe is already preparing for this change and although the FCC in the United States recently ruled against fast lanes, ISPs still actively lobby the government for a change. YouTube is a private company and as such, it can decide to ban any video for any reason whatsoever. Currently, this is not a problem that seriously affects the propagation of the New Media but it will take a turn for the worse the day Internet connections become fragmented. If this time comes, only the strongest will survive as most of the public won’t have proper, unrestricted access to alternate content distributors anymore. Internet TV will be, in effect, just TV.

The Last Word

The Internet has become a truly wonderful place to exchange information. While it grows, new challenges emerge as people and companies try to make sense of it all. The whole reaction videos issue has far more serious implications than a couple of funny videos being blocked on your favorite YouTube channel. It highlights the fact that the web is still going through its adolescence and needs our guidance. If we need public blunders to help us realize what the web brings to us, I only hope that somebody follows in the Fine Bros’ footsteps soon and repeats the same error.

If you didn’t pay attention to Net Neutrality before, you can thank the Fine Brothers and faulty YouTube copyright claim practices for the wake up call. You don’t need to be evil to make a mistake or lose your focus on the way to success so stop the bashing now. Instead, realize what would have happened if YouTube had already been in a position not to worry about competitors. The React World initiative would still be actively promoted by nice cute PR girls and would run in full motion by now. None of us want to receive an email from our ISP titled “Get your Unlimited YouTube package now for $9.96!” but this is what will happen if we don’t worry about the right issues. This is what a partnership between Internet providers and giants like Google would mean.

So keep on reacting to everything you see and post your thoughts about all of this. It’s up to us to express what we desire for the future of our Internet and remember: try to keep a smile in the process! Pitchforks aren’t that useful on the web after all.

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