YouTube sued over animal abuse videos, accused of not enforcing ban

Nina Jackel, founder of Lady Freethinker, in Los Angeles, Oct 17, 2021. Jackel said the group had found hundreds more "staged rescue" videos that endangered animals in the months since YouTube pledged to take action. (Tracy Nguyen/The New York Times)
The videos are disturbing. A giant python wraps its thick body around the neck of a puppy, which thrashes and squeals in panic. A baby monkey, trembling and screeching in horror, is poked, prodded and pinched inside a basket. Another monkey is forced to fend off a giant snake slithering toward it while tied to the ground.

As of Monday, all of those videos of animal abuse — and dozens more — were available on YouTube. Some of the videos have been on the site for years, viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Some also carried advertisements for pet food or vacation rental homes. That meant YouTube’s parent company, Google, was sharing advertising revenue with the people who posted the videos.

The videos are now the subject of a lawsuit filed Monday in California Superior Court in Santa Clara. Lady Freethinker, an animal rights nonprofit, sued YouTube, accusing it of breach of contract. The suit claims that the platform failed to live up to its agreement with users by allowing animal abuse videos to be uploaded and failing to take action when alerted about the content.

Lady Freethinker, which has exposed dogfighting rings in Chile and dog meat auctions in South Korea, said YouTube had ignored the group’s repeated flagging of animal abuse videos. YouTube’s community guidelines, the rules for what is allowed on the site, say animal abuse content is not permitted.

The ban includes videos in which humans inflict physical harm to an animal to cause suffering. The guidelines say YouTube also does not allow videos in which humans prompt animals to fight or stage a rescue that places the animal in a dangerous situation.

“YouTube is aware of these videos and its role in distributing them, as well as its continuing support of their creation, production and circulation,” the animal rights group’s complaint said. “It is unfortunate that YouTube has chosen to put profits over principles of ethical and humane treatment of innocent animals.”

The lawsuit reflects a repeated criticism of YouTube: Despite detailed and extensive policies for what is permissible, it has struggled to enforce them and prevent dangerous and disturbing videos from reaching its audience of more than 1 billion users. Enforcement remains a challenge even after YouTube has added thousands of human reviewers and made major investments in artificial intelligence to identify problematic videos before they are uploaded.

Zeve Sanderson, executive director of New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics, said that a lot of attention was paid to policies created by platforms like YouTube but that a lack of transparency made it hard to study how they were enforced.

“Guidelines matter, but enforcement probably matters more,” he said.

Because 500 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube per minute, on average, finding and removing content that crosses a line is difficult. Also, what breaks the rules isn’t always clear, and savvy creators know how to brush up against the guidelines without explicitly violating them.

But Nina Jackel, founder of Lady Freethinker, said in an interview that there was no gray area with many of the animal abuse videos, and that a company of YouTube’s size and resources should be able to identify and remove these clear violations.

Ivy Choi, a YouTube spokeswoman, said the company had expanded its policy on animal abuse videos this year. Since then, she said, it has removed hundreds of thousands of videos and terminated thousands of channels for violations. She cautioned that it took time to increase enforcement.

“We agree that content depicting violence or abuse toward animals has no place on YouTube,” Choi said in a statement.

Of 10 animal videos that The New York Times shared with YouTube, the company removed nine for violating its violent or graphic content policy. The one that was not removed shows a live rabbit being fed to a python. YouTube declined to explain why this video did not violate its guidelines.

Through its lawyers, Lady Freethinker also sent a letter to the Justice Department on Monday, accusing YouTube of aiding and abetting the violation of “animal crushing” law. Created in 1999 and amended in 2010 and 2019, the federal law prohibits making or distributing videos in which animals are “purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.”

The law allows exceptions for videos in which animals may be harmed in slaughter for food, legal hunting, the protection of people or property, medical research and euthanasia.

In the complaint and letter, the animal rights group said YouTube was profiting from animal abuse because some of the videos ran advertisements. For example, a video of a puppy desperately trying to escape the grasp of a python was preceded by a commercial for Vrbo, the vacation rental unit of Expedia Group.

Many of the comments on the video are also troubling. Under one video in which a baby monkey is manhandled while it screams in terror, one commentator called it a “thrill.” Under the same video, another person wrote that the creator should break the monkey’s arms to instill “some severe discipline.”

Jackel said it had been urging YouTube for 18 months to take meaningful action on the animal abuse videos. She said it provided the company last year with examples of violations on 146 channels with more than 2,000 videos collectively viewed 1.2 billion times. She said that YouTube hadn’t responded and that roughly 70 percent of those videos remained up last month.

In March, YouTube expanded its guidelines to ban staged animal rescues that put animals in dangerous situations and said it would start enforcement “within weeks.” Jackel said her organization had found hundreds more staged rescue videos in the months since then.

These videos often follow a pattern. They begin with a giant snake slithering slowly toward a helpless animal, such as a puppy, as melodramatic music plays. At some point, the snake attacks and begins to wrap its body around the flailing animal until a person intervenes.

In April, Jackel said, Lady Freethinker volunteered to be part of YouTube’s Trusted Flagger program, which provides individuals, government agencies and nongovernmental organisations with tools to notify the company of content that violates its guidelines. She said YouTube had told the organization that it was not bringing on trusted flaggers with expertise in animal abuse videos.

In July, Lady Freethinker, along with Action for Primates, a British nonprofit, wrote a letter to Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s chief executive, expressing concern about the company’s “laissez faire” attitude. It included a dozen examples of users and videos that had been flagged to YouTube for animal abuse violations but that had remained on the site.

The videos and user accounts were removed after the letter was sent.

“We’ve tried to have a meaningful conversation with them multiple times, and been shut down,” Jackel said. “We’re knocking on the door, and nobody is answering. So this lawsuit is kind of a last straw.”

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