There is one of those lovely little kerfluffles going on about YouTube and Google. It is possible for a word to have more than one meaning. Take, say, “lesbian”. This can refer to an act – no, not as in pretending on stage, but as an action – and some people will indeed be searching Google and other such places for links to that. It can also refer to the sexuality of a person – a person or group of people who might wish to talk about that but without the salacious part.
Something as dumb as a search engine has difficulty in distinguishing between those two meanings. Which does lead to certain problems. For example, Google won’t serve up ads – “demonetisation” in the parlance, actually meaning that the creators of the content don’t get the money from the ads which are still being shown – against material using that first meaning of lesbian.
But this isn’t the only example of concern for Google when it comes to its algorithms reducing LGBT+ people to their sex lives. Gay YouTubers have found that their videos are being demonetised, made inaccessible via search and age-restricted (requiring users to sign in to prove they are over 18). This, despite the fact many of these videos consist merely of interviews, advice and comedy sketches, and often are specifically targeted at young people who may be struggling with their sexuality and turn to the Google-owned YouTube as a source of support.
Two content creators, Bria Kam and her wife, Chrissy Chambers, along with six others, are now suing YouTube for “discrimination, fraud, unfair and deceptive business practices” and “unlawful restraint of speech”. This has a real-world impact, as Chambers says: “Age restriction means we can’t reach the young women who look up to us, who need us as a sense of community and support … When I think about YouTube shutting down our content, it gets me all fired up because they are literally having an impact on someone living another day.”
There is of course that temptation to believe that it’s the demonetisation rather than the age restriction which irks but that is to be ungentlemanly in one’s suspicions.
The thing is though this isn’t specific to LGBT. This very site sometimes finds posts demonetised. If we ponder, as we have done, the difference between sex and gender it can happen. Or why pornography and sex work pay so well – Gary Becker pointed out there’s a reduction in human capital involved as well as the basic unskilled labour – it can happen.
That is, search engines are dumb. They can’t distinguish between uses of a word, they just see the word itself. We can say it’s a problem or not, as we wish, but it’s not one specifically affecting LGBT issues at all.