YouTube’s “Restricted Mode” feature has been getting a lot of attention over the past few weeks. This has been largely due to the fact that it disproportionately affects LGBTQI+ creators, blocking access to videos on topics like coming out, bisexuality and wedding vows. YouTube has promised to “fix” the problem, whatever that means. However, any fix that leaves “Restricted Mode” in place is no fix at all.
In fact, the whole fiasco seems to hearken back to a few decades ago, even the use of the term “family-friendly” getting bantered around as a catch-all excuse. So instead of asking how this happened or what algorithm could fix it, maybe we should be asking slightly broader questions: Do we really want a return to the days of faux-family values? Do we need a Tipper Gore for the Digital Age? Because the “Restricted Mode” controversy is about more than YouTube, its LGBTQ+ creators or even social media. It is about whether in a time when so many forces are at work to make the world a smaller, more parochial, and more fearful place, we want to surrender once again to the notion that some ideas, some images and some people should simply be kept out of sight. Of course, YouTube is a private company and private companies are free to make most any decision they want in the service of their economic interests. That is why the issue is not if YouTube should offer a “Restricted Mode,” but if all of us should make it in YouTube’s interest to play that game.
According to YouTube’s support page, “Restricted Mode is an optional setting that you can use to help screen out potentially mature content that you may prefer not to see or don’t want others in your family to see.” The feature is also used by schools, libraries, and other public places. To be clear, a video coming up in a search does not mean anyone has to watch it. And even once you have started viewing something, you can stop at any time. It’s YouTube, not a suicide pact. Despite the support page definition, even without “Restricted Mode,” you can avoid content you do not want to see. And the solution to keeping content you would prefer your children not to see out of their hands is quite simply to not turn babysitting duties over to a machine.
That being said, perhaps we should be leery of parentally imposed media restrictions in the first place. Because the opportunity to circumvent parental control has been one of the wonderful, even life-saving things, about the internet—YouTube in particular. This is especially true for LGBTQ+ kids or really any kids who find themselves at odds with the families and communities into which they’ve been born. Let’s not forget, the now iconic It Gets Better Campaign is really premised on this point. The internet has been a place where literally life-saving information can reach those who are actively being kept from it. And sometimes that information is simply, “You are not alone.” With this knowledge, it seems odd that we would support the idea that internet platforms should seek out ways to allow parents to once again exercise the kind of censor powers they held in a pre-internet age.
That we would offer support for these kinds of measures so long as they don’t go too far (whatever too far is) becomes particularly insidious when you consider that YouTube intends to base what material is restricted on national and regional standards. Just like the decision by Google (YouTube’s parent company) to capitulate to China’s demand that it censor search results that appear to users in that country, this creates a multi-level internet based on the standards of the nation-state in which one happens to be. And this is (without seeming too dramatic) an affront to the idea of universal human rights. Do girls, LGBTQI+ kids, or just people who do not own a computer in Turkey have less right to access information and entertainment than those same people in Canada? The internet has democratized and universalized information access. It has done more than any other technological advancement to make real the greatest principle of the Enlightenment: That all people have inherent to their personhood certain rights that are inalienable from them, regardless of who they are or where they are born. Programs like “Restricted Mode” undermine this most important contribution of the internet and really do just make it just about cat memes.
Once again, YouTube is a private company and can and should do whatever makes business sense for YouTube. That is why we cannot make “Restricted Mode” (no matter how much they tweak it) make sense. The internet is one of humanity’s great inventions precisely because it has allowed us to circumvent so much of what has controlled our access to information and each other. At this crucial and, quite frankly, scary juncture in the history of the world and the internet, we need to be vigilant to guard the freedom of the web, lest we restrict ourselves out of our own progress.