An animal rights nonprofit is suing YouTube for failing to take down videos of animal abuse, and often allegedly profiting from them by selling ads running alongside the content, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.
The nonprofit, Lady Freethinker, and its founder, Nina Jackel, have filed a suit in California Superior Court in Santa Clara claiming that YouTube breached its contract by failing to take action on user reports about the videos, some of which are in clear violation of its rules. In court papers, the plaintiffs wrote that YouTube fails to enforce rules against animal fights, staged rescues that put animals in danger, and humans inflicting pain and suffering on animals. In a separate letter to the Department of Justice, Lady Freethinker’s legal team accused YouTube of aiding and abetting violations of a federal anti-“crushing” law, which prohibits making content in which animals are “purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.”
Videos reviewed by the Times were disturbing and included a human prodding and pinching a terrified baby monkey in a blanket, a separate monkey tied to the ground while a snake approaches, and a python trying to suffocate a puppy. Many of the videos, including the one featuring the python, feature users deliberately inflicting fear and pain on the animals before they intervene to prevent further harm. They generate revenue from advertisers: the python video was accompanied by ads for Vrbo, Expedia Group’s Airbnb-like vacation rental service, according to the Times.
“YouTube is aware of these videos and its role in distributing them, as well as its continuing support of their creation, production and circulation,” Lady Freethinker’s lawyers wrote in court documents, according to the Times. “It is unfortunate that YouTube has chosen to put profits over principles of ethical and humane treatment of innocent animals.”
“We apply strict brand safety controls for our YouTube campaigns to ensure our ads are not shown alongside content that is not aligned with our brand values, and this is certainly one of those cases,” a Vrbo spokesperson told Gizmodo via email. “We also use technology to set brand-safety controls and automation to assist with scale. On rare occasions, a video not aligned with our brand values may get past automated controls. As soon as we find out this has happened, we immediately update our blocklists, which are maintained across all of Expedia Group and regularly reviewed.”
As the Times noted, YouTube like other social media sites has pointed to the sheer volume of content uploaded to it—hundreds of hours of video per minute—as one reason why infringing content slips through the cracks. It also has various exemptions to the rules against videos depicting harm to animals, such as educational content, legal hunting and food slaughtering, as well as medical research and treatment. It also enjoys substantial protections against lawsuits for animal abuse content under Section 230, the law that helps shield website owners from lawsuits over user-generated content and has come up in related cases, like wildlife trafficking on Facebook. Section 230 has come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike for various reasons, but it’s the law of the land.
Various exceptions to Section 230 liability shields exist, but in general, the protections enjoyed by defendants are very strong and extend beyond Section 230 itself (for example, the First Amendment). Courts have thrown out or ruled for the defendants in innumerable lawsuits against tech firms for their moderation policies.
In December 2020, Lady Freethinker released the results of an investigation in which it claimed to have identified 2,053 videos involving animals deliberately harmed for entertainment or depicted them in severe psychological distress, serious pain, or dead. The nonprofit found the videos were spread over 150 channels and collectively gathered over 1.2 billion views. The report found that from April to July 2020, YouTube removed just 185 of the 2,053 videos, which were responsible for around 136.5 million views. Nina Jackel, the founder of Lady Freethinker, told the Times that 70% of the videos remained up as of last month. Jackel also said the group had volunteered to participate in a YouTube-run program that works with outside experts to identify infringing content, Trusted Flaggers, and been told that YouTube wasn’t interested in expanding it to include animal abuse.
In March 2021, another Lady Freethinker investigation focusing on 30 videos found that major brands including Disney+, Facebook, Amazon, Land Rover, Dyson, Nationwide Pet, Lowe’s, and Peloton were having their ads run against such content, according to Insider. YouTube responded by saying it would ban staged animal rescue videos, though Insider noted that a policy against “infliction of unnecessary suffering or harm deliberately causing an animal distress” already existed.
“We agree that content depicting violence or abuse toward animals has no place on YouTube,” Ivy Choi, a YouTube spokesperson, told Gizmodo via email. “While we’ve always had strict policies prohibiting animal abuse content, earlier this year, we expanded our violent and graphic policy to more clearly prohibit content featuring deliberate physical suffering or harm to animals, including staged animal rescues.”
The nonprofit instead asserts that YouTube is instead trying to shut down any efforts to draw attention to the problem.
“We’ve tried to have a meaningful conversation with them multiple times, and been shut down,” Jackel told the Times. “We’re knocking on the door, and nobody is answering. So this lawsuit is kind of a last straw.”
According to the Times, when asked for comment, YouTube deleted nine out of 10 example videos provided by the paper, but didn’t explain why it left another video of a live rabbit being fed to a python on the site.
Update: 10/19/2021 at 8:10 p.m. ET: This article has been updated with comment from Vrbo.