The online journal of Vermont filmmaker, Bill Simmon.

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The deep woods of censorship

Posted on Dec 18, 2008 by billsimmon in Digital Culture, Free Speech, VCAM, Video | 2 Comments

[Full disclosure: I am on the board of the Vermont ACLU, but my remarks on this blog do not necessarily represent the views of the Vermont ACLU or it's membership -- these are my own, personal thoughts on these matters.]

When I was on the VCAM board of directors, we spent a great deal of time dealing with the issue of “objectionable content” (a phrase which, like most language used in the discussion, is actually meaningless – all content is “objectionable” in that all content is “able” to be “objected” to). Our mission at VCAM is largely related to protecting the free speech of our community in the electronic milieu, and occasionally, we as a board were called upon to determine if a certain TV show was “appropriate” for broadcast or whether it should only be played late at night, when children were less likely to see it and so on.

Inevitably, these discussions would devolve into generating lists of types of content that would or would not be okay to air at what time of day, etc. One of the things I learned in these talks was how quickly the discussions became utterly absurd and how easy it is to think of scenarios that aren’t covered by whatever guidelines we could come up with.

I think these discussions must be RAGING in the Googleplex these days. On December 2nd, YouTube announced that it was ramping up it’s restrictions on “mature” and “sexually suggestive” content. They’ll apparently be using automated, “algorithmic” methods of screening content for profanity and “demoting” those videos that Google’s machines find offensive so that they are harder to find. This strikes me a profoundly stupid idea and one that will lead to all sorts of arbitrary and useless censorship.

To get a sense of just how deep in the censorship woods the folks at YouTube are, take a look at their Help Center page on age-restricted videos. Here’s a snip…

When are videos considered ‘sexually suggestive’?
Videos featuring sexually explicit content like real sex acts are not allowed. Other content like nudity and dramatized or implied sexual conduct may be considered sexually suggestive depending on whether or not it is intended or designed to arouse viewers.


Nudity includes exposed or partially covered genitalia, buttocks, or breasts, as well as sheer clothing. Videos featuring individuals in minimal or revealing clothing may also be age-restricted if they’re intended to elicit a sexual response.


Additional considerations include a combination of:

  • Whether breasts, buttocks, or genitals (clothed or unclothed) are the focal point* of the video.
  • Whether the video setting is sexually suggestive (e.g. a location generally associated with sexual activity, such as a bed);
  • Whether the subject is depicted in a pose that is intended to sexually arouse the viewer;
  • Whether the subject’s actions in the video suggests a willingness to engage in sexual activity (e.g. kissing, provocative dancing, fondling); and
  • If a subject is minimally clothed, whether the clothing would be acceptable in appropriate public contexts (e.g. swimwear vs. underwear).

* Focal point is determined by factors including the length of time an image appears in the video (fleeting vs. prolonged exposure) especially relative to the overall length of the video, the camera angle and focus, the relative clarity of the images in the video, the lighting, and the video thumbnail (content that appears in a thumbnail is also considered to be its focal point).

Wow. YouTube is getting into the vagaries of explicit vs. implicit content, what’s considered the “focal point” of the content, the intent of the video maker, the uploader AND the performers in the videos… this is exactly the sort of off-the-chart insanity that results when you go down the censorship road.

YouTube publishes a document like this because they want to be transparent and fair about how they apply their standards, but you simply can’t apply fundamentally subjective content standards in an objective way. Trying to do so yields nonsense like this. They would be better off with a blanket statement that simply says “we reserve the right to remove, censor, flag or demote content for any reason whatsoever” and leave it at that. At least then they would be honest in their tyranny.

Ultimately, we on the VCAM board discovered that putting the power to filter unwanted content in the hands of the viewer was far more effective than censorship. An informed audience can make their own viewing decisions, so our goal was to arm viewers with as much information as possible about what sort of content they might encounter and let them watch or not as they see fit.

We further recognized that defining “sexually explicit” content (for example) was necessarily a subjective call and so rather than describing types images and acts and messing about with trying to determine the intent of the producers, we focused on the system we used to vet controversial material. It’s the process that we made sure was transparent and fair rather than focusing on specific body parts and whether or not there was a prurient intent on the part of the producer.

Hopefully the powers that be at YouTube will eventually realize the futility of their actions. I, for one, will have a hard time recommending YouTube to people who ask about video hosting/sharing services while they employ such arbitrary and capricious content restrictions.

FWIW, there is a YouTube “blackout” getting organized for the next several days in protest to these new policies.



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  1. “Ultimately, we on the VCAM board discovered that putting the power to filter unwanted content in the hands of the viewer was far more effective than censorship.”

    I can see it now: a safe search form were the viewer lists all of the things that they find objectionable.

    the word fuck: check
    breasts: check
    penises: check

  2. Doesn’t that mean that 95% of music videos (and 99.9% of hiphop videos) are now objectionable?

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