Google continues to improve YouTube by adding functionality such as 360-degree videos and working to bring encryption into nearly 100% of YouTube video streams. Google says that “some devices do not fully support modern HTTPS. Over time, to keep YouTube users as safe as possible, we will gradually phase out insecure connections.” In October 2015, Google announced YouTube Red, a $10-per-month subscription service that features music and original content and is designed to more directly compete with Hulu, Netflix, Vimeo, and other services with premium components.
To compete with Hulu’s Splash, Google is reportedly planning a new subscription service, Unplugged, that would “offer customers a bundle of cable TV channels streamed over the internet,” according to Investor’s Business Daily. In another interesting decision, Google announced that its Hangouts On Air live video service would be moving to YouTube in September. eWeek reports that the company isn’t forthcoming on the reasons for this, “[s]o it is unclear whether declining participation and interest in the service prompted the decision. It also is not clear if the lack of mobile support for Hangouts On Air influenced Google’s decision to move the streaming feature to YouTube Live.”
An Environment of Change
Google isn’t alone in making changes to its video products. Facebook’s partnership with Blizzard Entertainment aims to broaden its footprint in this market with access to games such as World of Warcraft. In the past year, Amazon Video has more than doubled its streaming traffic, although this still represents less than 5% of fixed traffic in North America, according to Sandvine’s Global Internet Phenomena Report. This number is far behind even Netflix’s 35% share. Sling TV and Vimeo have focused their efforts on commercial or professional markets and haven’t worked to develop a broader market for their services.
If there is any question about the primacy of internet-based communities today and the value they have to international commerce, Adweek notes that Alphabet (Google’s parent company) now controls 12% of all global media spending and is “the world’s largest media owner,” collecting $60 billion in U.S. advertising spend. For better or worse, Google has been able to define (if not create) much of our internet experience in the last 30 years. “Five digital players—Google, Facebook, Baidu, Yahoo and Microsoft—collectively generated 19 percent of all global ad budgets,” the Adweek article continues. “And when looking specifically at digital money, the companies make up 65 percent of Internet revenue globally, with $88 billion in ad sales in the U.S. alone. According to Zenith, digital ad spend has grown 18 percent every year for the past five years while spend across all other types of media has grown .6 percent.”
A First Amendment for Social Platforms?
In June 2016, Nabiha Syed, assistant general counsel of BuzzFeed, and Ben Smith, its editor-in-chief, published a proposal for a rights guarantee for web users that is similar to the First Amendment. “The trust we place in [social platforms] is ultimately about whether we trust them to manage our own collective expression. For this trust to endure, these platforms must be transparent about their own policies and be consistent in their enforcement. Fortunately, experimenting platforms do not need to start from scratch. Lawyers and judges have spent centuries wrestling with similar questions surrounding free speech. Their answers can be deployed to defend the remarkable global public squares the platforms have created.” The full proposal is worth a read.
Fortune writer Matthew Ingram voices his support for this proposal, but cautions, “As honorable as these calls for transparency and shared principles are, is there any realistic chance that Facebook or Twitter or any of the other platforms will actually do this? Twitter is busy trying to prop up its failing share price, and Facebook is so dominant there’s virtually no upside to getting dragged into a debate over free speech—although its willingness to meet with conservative leaders over trending topics suggests there is some room for optimism. In any case, it’s worth pressing the issue, because the principles at stake are important ones, and they aren’t going away.”
Slate’s Kate Klonick has another perspective: “But while geographically bound communities have had thousands of years to evolve norms in real life, developing expectations for behavior on a global internet is still in its nascent stages. This is especially true for online speech. …” Klonick quotes former Google executive Nicole Wong, who observes that in the past 20 years, online speech has been going through a “norm setting process.” “We’re still in the middle of how to think about the norms of behavior when what is considered ‘appropriate’ speech is constantly iterating,” Wong tells Klonick. “If you layer the changes in technology over a broadening array of cultural, racial, national, global perspectives, it is hard to pin down principled, universal social norms, let alone create policy to reflect them.”
As information professionals, we also have a major stake in these developments. As we watch the growth of YouTube and other web-based communications and social media institutions, we find ourselves in an era of information that is unfettered, unvetted, and sometimes disappears without a trace. Self-monitoring of these systems in a global setting without some form of oversight has been the norm, but can this continue into the future? Time will tell.