Google Profits from Pedophiles
By Mark Hurst • June 6, 2019

It's been an busy week for tech journalists covering Google, considering the anti-trust investigation of Google's monopoly and a maelstrom around how Google handles hate speech. Both of these stories are important and worth following, but they're not the biggest Google story of the week. Not by a long shot. Because here's what we learned this week:

Google profits from pedophiles.

I'm not hyperbolizing, not speaking metaphorically, certainly not making a joke. I'm just stating a fact, reported in the New York Times and responded to by Google itself; a fact that you can decide to respond to or not, but one that you must at least be aware of. Once again, it's:

Google profits from pedophiles.

The New York Times article, from June 3, describes a horrifying way in which Google is profiting from home movies that feature small children. After the videos are innocently uploaded to YouTube by families, the YouTube algorithm shows the videos to the users who will show the highest level of "engagement" by watching the videos, one after another, as served up by Google's algorithm.

These users are pedophiles. Google's YouTube algorithm, when combined with the autoplay of the next recommended video, optimizes the YouTube experience for pedophiles.

Max Fisher, co-author of the Times story, explained in a Twitter thread:

Each video might appear innocent on its own, a home movie of a kid in a two-piece swimsuit or a nightie. But each has three common traits: the girl is mostly unclothed or briefly nude; she is no older than age 8; [and] her video is being heavily promoted by YouTube's algorithm.

We talked to one mother, in Brazil, whose daughter had posted a video of her and a friend playing in swimsuits. YouTube's algorithm found the video and promoted it to users who watched other partly-clothed prepubescent children. Within a few days of posting, it had 400,000 views.

Those 400,000 views represent profit for Google, and that's just from a single video over a few days. Consider the profit potential of monetizing thousands, even millions, of these home videos, for months, or years, for untold numbers of pedophiles watching on YouTube.

Anyone with even a nominal moral sense can see there's a problem: Google is profiting, even optimizing its profits, from the sexual exploitation of children. Or, stated another way:

Google profits from pedophiles.

You might find these revelations sickening and shocking, but to Google this isn't anything new. That video in the quote above, from Brazil? According to the Times story, the video was still being "promoted by YouTube's systems months after the company was alerted that it had a pedophile problem, [back] in February, [by] Wired and other news outlets." (Emphasis mine.) In other words, Google knew months ago that its YouTube profits were tainted, and it didn't fix the problem.

Why wouldn't Google immediately fix this problem? Because Google's YouTube profits are based on "engagement" at any cost, and that means that:

Google profits from pedophiles.

Now, I'll grant that I'm repeating the same phrase over and over, and one objection might be, "Hey, it's not just pedophiles Google profits from." That's true and totally fair to bring up. Because Google also profits from terrorist propaganda, conspiracy videos, antivaxxers, political radicalization, "nightmare videos" specifically made for child viewers, and don't forget the hate speech that I mentioned above.

So I'll grant it's not just pedophiles.

But here I'm focusing on Google's profiting from pedophilia because I can't imagine anything less acceptable, less honorable, less human for a company to do. Making money from the sexual exploitation of children is well below "troubling," further down below "disgusting," down past your everyday "evil," right smack at the absolute bottom of the abyss. After all, you might meet someone who is willing to talk about their belief in a flat earth (thanks to YouTube's recommended videos, as described here) - or perhaps someone would loudly voice their radical political beliefs - but no one is going to stand up publicly and claim an interest in sexually exploiting children. Google, in contrast, actively enables this behavior, as it has figured out how to profit from it. Once again:

Google profits from pedophiles.

After the New York Times described this profit stream, Google posted a public response on its corporate blog for YouTube. This response is a crucial document for understanding Google's commitment to the profit engine that enables pedophiles (as well as terrorists, anti-vaxxers, conspiracists, and so on). Keep in mind that this response appeared months after Google was initially alerted to the pedophilia issue.

Here is Google's response to the New York Times story. Read it for yourself. As you do so, see if you can find (a) any acknowledgement of YouTube's sexual exploitation of children, or the complicity of Google's business model in bringing this about, or (b) any pledge to fix the problem. I couldn't find either. And this is because:

Google profits from pedophiles.

Notice how Google's response...

  • starts with this claim: "Responsibility is our number one priority." This from the company that profits from pedophiles, the company that was alerted to the issue months earlier and only responded after pressure from a leading news source. Does this shout "responsibility"? Would you agree that it's the "number one priority" at YouTube?

  • doesn't directly acknowledge the New York Times story, and doesn't acknowledge the problem of sexually exploiting children for profit. Instead, Google's response makes a vague reference to "videos featuring minors" in "recent news reports." That's not a good sign, if Google can't bring itself to explicitly name and acknowledge the problem.

  • doesn't pledge to fix the problem, instead listing superficial actions that don't address the key issue of profiting from pedophiles. Google claims it has (a) disabled comments on some videos - but the comments are not the key problem here! - and (b) it's "reducing recommendations" on unspecified videos - a statement which, though maddeningly vague, might mean, at most, that Google is pledging to send fewer pedophiles to kid-videos than they did before.

This isn't good. Google claims the moral high ground, doesn't acknowledge the problem, and doesn't fix the problem. And let's not forget what the problem is:

Google profits from pedophiles.

Finally, in an amazing feat either of arrogance or cluelessness, or both, the Google blog post actually defends the YouTube team, saying that "YouTube is a company made up of parents and families" ... wow. It's as though an oil company spills oil all over a fragile ecosystem and then says, "Our company is made of humans who also live on this earth, so we're absolved." To call this tone-deaf would be far too generous. Google's response shows no indication that they are willing to address the key problem, which is:

Google profits from pedophiles.

There's a simple fix to the problem. And Google knows what it is. I know this because the New York Times article stated it very clearly (emphasis mine):

YouTube has not put in place the one change that researchers say would prevent this from happening again: turning off its recommendation system on videos of children, though the platform can identify such videos automatically. The company said that because recommendations are the biggest traffic driver, removing them would hurt "creators" who rely on those clicks.

As I stated at the beginning of this column, the profit engine at YouTube is built from an algorithm that automatically serves up videos to optimize "engagement," whether that means serving up flat-earth videos to conspiracy fans, or curating kid-videos for pedophiles. The obvious fix, as the Times story mentions, is to turn off the recommendation system. Unless and until that happens, Google's business model remains as such:

Google profits from pedophiles.

Far from implementing the obvious fix, Google has to-date only shown passing interest in the occasional issue that blows up in the press or social media. Viral story on monetizing pedophilia? Social media outrage on monetizing hate speech? Google will make some superficial move and claim to be working on the issue of the day, whether by hiring more moderators or taking down some of the offending videos. And that's just for whatever specific issue got the press attention. What Google never, ever, addresses is the key problem of profiting from serving up "engagement" at all costs. If you're being treated unjustly by Google in some other way, and you don't have a New York Times journalist writing about it, you're out of luck.

The problem isn't one type of video. Each is just a symptom of the root disease at the heart of the YouTube business model: the algorithm that recommends videos - even harmful, exploitative videos - for profit. Even profit from pedophiles.

My own suggested solution, as I detailed back in April, is as follows: The only way for users to get to a video should be if they specifically request it, search for it, or subscribe to it. This means killing Recommended Videos entirely, and disabling autoplay. Totally, system-wide, no exceptions. Kill the YouTube algorithm. Until Google is forced to do this (as it shows no signs of taking this step on its own), we can continue to state this fact:

Google profits from pedophiles.

I want you to keep this mind as you use Google products (if you still use them; I avoid them wherever I can).

• When you make a Google search, think to yourself: "My search activity feeds an algorithm so that Google can profit from pedophiles."

• When you open your Gmail, think to yourself: "The surveillance Gmail conducts on my emails are not the only profit stream for Google. Google also profits from pedophiles."

• When you use Google Maps, think to yourself: "This mapping was built by a company that profits from pedophiles."

• When you open up Chrome, just remember that you're accessing the Web through a browser built and maintained by a company that profits from pedophiles.

• And certainly whenever you watch a YouTube video, remind yourself that at that very moment, YouTube is serving up videos to pedophiles - and profiting from it.

If you feel some revulsion from these thoughts - and you should - don't ignore it. Any usage we give Google products is an implicit vote that we accept what this company does, that we are willing to offer up our behavioral data to Google's surveillance-capitalist profit model. We're willing, in other words, to support the company that profits from pedophiles.

I've come to the conclusion that I can't, in good conscience, use Google products - unless it's unavoidable. It feels wrong, in principle, to give my time, attention, and data to a company suffering from a shocking lack of moral leadership. And others feel as I do, at least in part: the aptly-named lists dozens of alternatives to Google products. (I use DuckDuckGo for search and FastMail for email, for starters.)

As a closing thought I want to acknowledge that today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a single day when over 150,000 people risked, or gave, their young lives for a higher purpose. Call it democracy, call it liberation; whichever, it was something higher, much higher, than a grasping for profit at any cost. 75 years ago, thousands of young men plunged into the surf, just a stone's throw from the machine guns, so that future generations might live in a better world. But today our economy celebrates, rewards, and bows to a company that profits from pedophiles. What a shame.

- Mark Hurst

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Update: My July 25 post The showdown between Big Tech and democracy has begun shows YouTube's public response to the pedophilia issue. Compare with YouTube videos featuring children rank in highest views, Pew study says (July 26).

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More resources:

YouTube's algorithm makes it easy for pedophiles to find more videos of children - Technology Review, June 4, 2019 - a good accompaniment to the New York Times story covered above.

Techtonic from June 3, 2019 (my WFMU radio show a few days ago, including my comments on the New York Times story that broke that day)

Past Techtonic episodes, also available as a podcast.

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Google profits from pedophiles, writes @markhurst:

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