Big Tech must not be judge, jury and executioner

YouTube’s clampdown on Russell Brand is an affront to due process.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Free Speech Politics UK

I’m almost surprised it took them this long. Barely three days after comic, actor and self-styled online guru Russell Brand was accused of rape and sexual assault – as part of a blockbuster Sunday Times, Times and Channel 4 investigation – YouTube has ‘demonetised’ all of his videos on its platform, depriving him of any advertising income.

Brand’s channel has 6.5million subscribers. His videos – catering to that curiously large intersection between ‘wellness’ aficionados and conspiracy theorists – often rack up millions of views. Industry experts estimate that he was raking in between £2,000 to £4,000 a video, potentially amounting to £1million a year.

But no longer. Brand has been deprived of one of his main revenue streams at a stroke. Apparently, because he has violated YouTube’s ‘creator responsibility’ policy, which allows it to punish videomakers if their ‘off-platform behaviour harms our users, community, employees or ecosystem’, a standard so vague that it could conceivably be applied to any unpleasant offline conduct. In effect, Brand has been defunded because he has been accused of serious crimes.

What you think about Brand and the awful allegations against him really doesn’t matter here. YouTube’s decision to cut him off – to mete out punishment before he has even been arrested, let alone charged or tried, for his alleged crimes – takes us into deep and murky waters. Those shrugging this off as the least someone like Brand deserves are inviting faceless mega-corporates to act as judge, jury and executioner.

Russell Brand undoubtedly has a case to answer. The reporting by The Sunday Times, The Times and Dispatches reveals numerous, chilling allegations, supported by striking circumstantial evidence. But he is still innocent until proven guilty. No newspaper report or documentary could ever be so thorough that we could just skip straight to the sentencing. This is not how justice works.

Those saying the presumption of innocence is a narrow legal right, which has no bearing on the Brand case as yet, should realise what it is they are arguing for. Are we seriously suggesting that it is totally fine – not really a big deal – for the billionaires of Silicon Valley to take sides in serious criminal allegations, to punish the accused before the police have got their boots on?

You don’t have to reach for many hypotheticals before you see what a sinister development this is. Cliff Richard may not have made his money as a YouTuber. But are we now saying that he should have been unilaterally stripped of all his music royalties the moment he was accused in 2014 – by five separate men – of past child sex abuse, charges from which he was later exonerated?

I’m sure there are plenty of people making money on YouTube today who have been convicted, let alone accused, of violent crimes. Do we now think that, say, a musician, who may have done something heinous while a gang-affiliated young man but is now turning his life around, should be defunded for life? Where’s the line? Where’s the standard? Or is YouTube – as we all suspect – just making this stuff up as it goes along?

This is one of the most chilling things about the rise of Silicon Valley unpersoning – how arbitrary and reactive it is; how back-of-a-fag-packet its rules are. As soon as some scandal peeks over the horizon, the eggheads of Big Tech set about cooking up new punishments – or reaching into their archives of vaguely worded policies to get them out of today’s PR hitch. The upshot of all this is a byzantine regime of online control.

Just look at how far we’ve gone in the space of a decade. First ‘hate speech’ was censored. Then it was ‘misinformation’. Now you can be punished for your offline behaviour – and from decades ago, it seems. Surely, this is when we all have to admit that Big Tech clampdowns never had anything to do with platforms just being ‘responsible’, with limiting the spread of potentially ‘inflammatory’ or ‘inciting’ speech. It is now just a weapon used to punish those who have sparked the ire of the great and good. That some of them may well be genuine scumbags is besides the point. We’re rubber-stamping corporate tyranny here.

‘They’re private companies, they can do what they want’ – so goes the cry from alleged leftists, who suddenly become converts to free-market fundamentalism whenever cases like this arise. But they wilfully ignore how monopolising these platforms are in their respective fields. YouTube is not just a video platform, it is the video platform. It looms over the landscape. No other site comes within a country mile of it. Brand may well retreat to Rumble – the free-speech video site where he already has a big presence – but if he did, his content would reach a fraction of the people it does now.

I hold no candle for Brand. I’m certainly not one of those people who thinks these allegations are all some elaborate establishment stitch-up – you know, the ‘sceptical’ folk on social media who apparently believe Brand implicitly and reflexively think all mainstream-media reporters are WEF shills. Blind faith of any kind corrodes justice and reason, whether it’s coming from #BelieveWomen feminists or the tinfoil-hatted Team Russell.

In fact, what makes his YouTube defunding particularly infuriating is that it will fuel the dark imaginations of those who think Brand is being taken out by some shady cabal and that his accusers are obviously lying snakes. That Big Tech censorship has grown at precisely the same time as conspiratorial thinking has exploded in the online world is clearly no coincidence. Covid sent both into overdrive – and Brand was one of many influencers to capitalise on it, learning how to stay just about on the right side of the speech codes while serving an increasingly conspiratorial audience.

If anything, YouTube’s hasty defunding of Brand’s account reminds us just how wrong the conspiracy theorists have it. Our age is not one of sinister elite plots, but of never-ending elite hysteria – in which the rules of the game are written and rewritten in response to the scandal of the day; in which hard-won principles – from due process to freedom of speech – are jettisoned with barely a thought given to the consequences.

This is why we should all be concerned about the unpersoning of Russell Brand, before his alleged crimes have even seen the inside of a courtroom. With elites this casually authoritarian, this rash and unprincipled, it really could be anyone next.

Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Free Speech Politics UK


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