In March of 2017 YouTube quietly released “Restricted Mode” a child-friendly filter for its content that was intended to address issues of underage access to inappropriate material like overly sexualized and hyper-violent content, and adult themes like health and politics. However, the filter also screened out almost all LGBTQ+ content regardless of context, affecting discovery categories, search mode, suggested videos & auto-play for content that was deemed, via the algorithm, as “too adult” for children.
By lumping all LGBTQ+ content as “adult” YouTube’s new platform policy contributes towards the harmful over-sexualization of LGBTQ+ people in society. Policies like this contribute towards the Trans Exclusionary Bathroom Bills and a general rhetoric that dehumanizes LGBTQ+ people. Further, it disconnects queer youth from knowledge, community, and history. Even programs designed to address queer youth specifically like Queer Kids Stuff and Carmilla were affected by Restricted Mode, despite being clearly designed to appropriately include young people. Around the same time YouTube implemented machine learning to categorize the “best” videos to monetize based on their current advertisers.
A month later YouTube announces that it has “fixed” the LGBTQ+ censorship issue in Restricted Mode, but no details are given as to how the issue was created or how it was resolved. However, several months later in June of 2017 implementation of the fix was still ongoing (with 12 million videos switching back and forth from being approved or censored). Further, CEO Susan Wojcicki insisted that Restricted Mode was not tied to the monetization system.
Overtime, as Restricted Mode was addressed, many LGBTQ+ creators noticed a severe decline in revenue and accused YouTube’s bots of systematically demonetized content that used LGBTQ+ terminology in titles, descriptions, and tags. In the Summer of 2019 Sealow, YouTube Analyzed and Nerd City did a substantial audit trying to determine the terms demonetized by YouTube’s bots. The list includes over a 1000 words and terms that are confirmed as demonetized on the site, including lesbian, gay, and homo – lumping these utilitarian terms of orientation in with hate speech and organizations like the N-word, the KKK and ISIS, hypersexualized terminology, and profanity.
Nerd City in their YouTube video states “What our list proved and gay creators have never been told is that they are allowed to be gay, you just can’t talk about it or they won’t get their paycheck” (“YouTube’s Biggest Lie”). In August of 2019 a lawsuit seeking class action status was filed against YouTube regarding the "unlawful content regulation, distribution, and monetization practices that stigmatize, restrict, block, demonetize, and financially harm the LGBTQ+ Plaintiffs and the greater LGBTQ+ Community" (Yurieff, CNN). Much is at stake for the LGBTQ+ community in this case and its intersection with several Supreme Court cases currently under deliberation around the legalities of workplace discrimination based on orientation and gender presentation.