Update: ARTE’s Trailer Not Removed, But the Confusion Is the Story

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Yesterday, I wrote about the case of what appeared to have been a removal of a trailer for the documentary film The Cleaners. I’ll point you to that post so that I don’t need to rehash it too much here and I can get right to the update.


Here’s the update. This morning (US-time), the Twitter conversation continued among people based in France. One person involved pointed out that he was able to see what he assumed to be ARTÉ’s trailer without any difficulty:


A discussion ensued that again focused on what Davey Alba of Buzzfeed pointed out yesterday: the email that ARTÉ received and upon which they based the claims of censorship came from: adwords-noreply. This appeared to be a message emanating from the Ad “quality raters” about whom she has written extensively. This is a form of commercial content moderation that has to do with managing the relationships between advertisers who want to make money by being placed around videos, for example, on YouTube or across the Google ecosystem, more generally, and the content that those ads are placed near. Advertisers are sensitive about this issue and a misguided placement can lead, at a minimum, to poor targeting and missed opportunity, but in some situations can lead to embarrassment or outcomes that turn off potential customers; given this fact, Google closely and stringently manages these relationships, and gives advertisers the ability to set their own thresholds and tolerances for certain types of material, too. Since Google is an advertising company, the placement of ads on its products and the revenue these generate is big business, and, as many argue, its primary business (see Safiya Noble’s book Algorithms of Oppression for a lengthy discussion).

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Google AdSense’s user-facing guidelines about what material is disallowed by their program; this is the page served to American viewers

So what actually happened here? Le Monde‘s tech arm, Pixels, sussed it out and discovered several factors that had been confused in the initial claims from ARTE:

“Le courriel annonçant la suppression de la vidéo YouTube n’a pas été envoyé par les équipes de modération de la plate-forme mais par celles de la régie publicitaire. Sollicitée par Le Monde, Arte reconnaît qu’il s’agissait bien d’une publicité, à destination du public allemand, et non d’une bande-annonce publiée sur sa chaîne YouTube. La filiale de Google a donc refusé une publicité, et non dépublié une vidéo.”

“The email announcing the suppression of the YouTube video was not sent by the platform’s moderation team but by its advertising control team. When asked by Le Monde, ARTE recognized that it was actually an advertisement destined for German audiences and not a trailer published on its YouTube channel. The Google affiliate therefore rejected an ad; they didn’t take down a video.” [translation: mine]

Okay, what?

As Le Monde goes on to report, rules around accepted/acceptable content for advertisements are even more “draconian” than for other types of content:

“Les règles en matière de publicité sur YouTube sont encore bien plus draconiennes que celles qui s’appliquent aux contenus classiques. « Les contenus pouvant choquer les utilisateurs ne sont autorisés dans aucun type d’annonce. Il peut s’agir, par exemple, d’un langage obscène, d’images choquantes ou sanglantes », précisent les règles de YouTube pour les annonceurs.

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The AdSense policy prohibiting “shocking content”; this is the page that is served to requests originating in the United States. The Le Monde passage above provides a link to a page for audiences in France.

All of this ending in a confusion by ARTÉ France about what happened to what, and who did what to whom. It’s also not clear (to me), even based on these important clarifications from Le Monde, whether or not the “advertisement” that was rejected by that side of Google’s house was the same, literally, as the trailer produced by ARTÉ France, but packaged as an ad to be played for German users on other YouTube videos, or was…something else. The trailer that ARTÉ France created uses imagery included in the film itself. I don’t know what the rejected ad looked like; presumably, it was also made from the film’s content and maybe is the exact same thing, but I am reluctant to hazard a guess because this is messy enough as it is.

Which leads me to a few final points. The ARTÉ trailer appears to be up and live, at least for those in France (and maybe for a broader European audience, in general). I can’t access it from North America/the United States, and it’s likely that ARTÉ doesn’t have permission to share its own trailer here, given the way film distribution works in different markets. Again, though, who knows?

ARTÉ definitely jumped the gun on declaring its video “censored” yesterday – and so did I in reporting that out – but the truth is quite interesting nonetheless. YouTube deemed a trailer about movie about doing content moderation as being “too shocking” to be used in its advertising ecosystem. That’s the precision needed. The trailer remains up and available. Any use of that trailer as advertising or with advertising, however, appears to have been rejected.

Was it a case of censorship, full-stop? No, looks like it wasn’t. Instead, it’s something more ambiguous and weird, but nevertheless amusing in a gallows-humor sort of way. How can users and producers (also known as people) know what actually goes into the decision-making process and understand the interplay of these complex “products” and systems when all of these things are opaque and labyrinthine by design? ARTÉ would have done well to seek clarification prior to making their own post on the subject. Perhaps they could have reached out after receiving the email…from adwords-noreply. 😉

The end of the Le Monde article points out that the trailer produced by the German production company Gebrüder Beetz is up on YouTube and available, and has been this whole time – an interesting point, but one that gets away from some of the other problems with all of this, including the fact that the main distribution channel for major international film production companies, for news media companies and for cultural arts programming channels destined for French and German audiences all funnel into the black box ecosystem of a U.S.-based multinational that doesn’t tell much of anything to anyone and can largely do as it pleases around the rules it sets. What could possibly go wrong?

But Le Monde questions the regime of commercial content moderation being in the hands of private companies, and notes that that is a question central to The Cleaners, too. Ultimately, the fact remains that ARTÉ’s trailer has been relegated to a status of containing “shocking material,” per the standards of YouTube’s own internal logics and ecosystem. That that has occurred with a trailer for a film on the very hazards – personal and political – of implementing those logics remains ironic, at best.

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