Although it's been criticized in recent months for making money from videos containing illegal or objectionable content, a Google company official said the search engine giant generates little income off such footage on its video-sharing website YouTube.
In June, a report released by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Digital Citizens Alliance cast a harsh light on Google's practice of “monetizing” videos that openly promote illegal pharmacies, counterfeit merchandise, forged documents and even prostitution, claiming the company should be able to prevent such videos from making it online using its sophisticated technology.
Last month, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt wrote a letter to Google officials demanding information about how many videos “were removed between January 2011 and the end of June ... for violating YouTube policies that prohibit the posting of illegal and objectionable content.”
Pruitt, who co-authored the letter with Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, also demanded to know how much money was made selling ads to run before the videos played for users.
In their letter, the attorneys general expressed particular concerns about Google's practice of advertising with videos produced by “foreign pharmacies that promote the sale of prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet and others without a prescription.”
Videos promoting the sale of counterfeit goods and those that provide step-by-step instructions for making fake ID cards and passports are also of concern to Pruitt and Bruning, according to the letter.
Pruitt and Bruning indicated they want to work with Google to end the practice of “monetizing” videos deemed illegal or objectionable and that they are “prepared to take appropriate action to safeguard our citizens” if the company doesn't end the practice itself.
“We understand that YouTube is an open platform and that not all content can or should be policed,” Pruitt and Bruning wrote in the letter. “Nevertheless, the fact that Google actively seeks to profit from the posting of these types of videos on YouTube — a website known to be particularly popular among children and teens — is very troubling.”
Google responded to Pruitt and Bruning on July 30, saying that it derives “minimal” income from the questionable videos and that the company removes millions of videos each year on its own.
Adam Barea, director of Google's legal department, wrote in the company's response that YouTube has removed more than 10 million videos since the start of 2011 after the videos were flagged by users.
Barea wrote that between 40,000 and 50,000 videos are removed each week due to copyright issues and that law enforcement agencies have requested and been granted roughly 18,000 removals “between 2011 and 2012.”
He said YouTube relies on its billion or so users to flag illegal and inappropriate videos. The company also uses “screening mechanisms and machine learning models to locate videos that potentially violate YouTube's policies.”
But it's never going to be enough, Barea said.
“The enormous scale of YouTube — more than 100 hours of video content is uploaded to the site every minute — means that there will always exist some very small percentage of videos which violate YouTube's policies and manage to evade YouTube's systems,” he wrote.
As for how much money Google has generated selling advertisements to run alongside videos of rogue pharmacies' promotions or “how-to guides” for making fake IDs, Barea's statement doesn't answer that question.
In their July 2 letter to Google Inc., Pruitt and Bruning requested the total revenue derived from videos — those deemed illegal or objectionable — that had been removed since the beginning of 2011.
“YouTube's data is not organized in a way that would make it easy to determine the monetization of removed video content,” Barea wrote in the company's response. “It would therefore be burdensome and take a considerable amount of time to provide a complete answer to this question as posed.”
To illustrate how little money YouTube generates from videos with illegal or objectionable content, Barea provided total advertising revenue for all “health and pharmaceutical-related content,” which would include rogue pharmacies.
“The total advertising revenue to YouTube and video producers combined, for all YouTube videos in this category, was approximately $123,000 (between January and the end of June) ... and approximately $111,000 for all of 2012,” Barea wrote.
“Most of the revenue associated with this content came from perfectly legitimate videos.”
To put that in perspective, YouTube is expected to generate just under $4 billion in revenue by the end of the year, according to industry analysts.
‘Continuing our dialogue'
Julie Bays, chief of the Public Protection Unit for the Oklahoma attorney general's office, said the agency will continue to look into Google's practice of profiting from questionable videos.
“The attorney general was not satisfied with the response from Google and we will ask for further information,” Bays said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our dialogue with Google on these issues.
“We want to find out if Google can do more to prevent the posting of these videos.”
Bays said she isn't aware of any YouTube videos deemed illegal or objectionable with a direct connection to Oklahoma.
“We are not specifically aware of any Oklahomans affected by these videos,” Bays said, “but we remain concerned considering the prevalence of pain medication drug abuse in our state.”