Is free speech on drugs being censored by corporate giants? The disappearance of a YouTube channel.

Without warning, Google's YouTube deleted hundreds of videos with information and discussion on drug use. 

Damon Smith
14 February 2014

In 2008, television producer Cara Lavan decided she was fed up of the way drugs were talked about in the mass media and that she wanted to see a more honest and reasoned discussion. She set up the Know Drugs website and with a group of volunteers, set about filming, editing and tagging over 450 informative videos and uploading them to YouTube. They knew YouTube was not the only video host - but as the most widely searched, with the majority of on-line video traffic going through the site it was the obvious choice.

Their clips comprised interviews with people talking about all aspects of drug use: from marijuana to mephedrone to heroin, from addicts to recreational users to psychologists and judges. Nobody who participated in the project was paid for their efforts. People who are firmly anti drug use, such as the National Drug Prevention Alliance’s David Raynes, sat alongside drug law reform campaigners like Transforms’ Steve Rolles.  

The channel provided unbiased information about the complex relationship between human beings and psychoactive drugs with videos from drug users, ex-users, non-users, scholars, public figures, enforcers, and campaigners. It tackled topics as diverse as the use of Ibogaine as a detox and treatment for drug addiction, to the possible negative consequences for children if prohibition of drugs was lifted, to authorities both decrying and advocating the continuation of the global War on Drugs. This is important for a society that seems polarised in its narrative of psychoactivity; in which the broader variety of drug experiences are kept secret mainly due to stigma and legal status. The videos and comment threads as a whole represented a community discussion of great importance, one that most nations of the world seem reluctant, but need to have.

All those that brought the channel into being did it out of the motivation that if you want to see a change in society, you need to get up and make it happen.

On December 3rd, 2013, Know Drugs received a message via e-mail from the social media giant, YouTube stating one of their videos had been flagged as inappropriate. The video was entitled ‘How is Ibogaine used in different cultures?’

The video in question discussed the traditional, sacramental use of the Ibogaine-containing Tabernanthe Iboga in west central Africa. It showed an interview with ethnobotanist Hattie Wells. This is a transcript of the video:

It’s not used regularly. In Africa it’s used. It’s used as their sacrament so much like we would go to church and you know, partake of the. What do you call it? Communion, partake of communion. They will go to church and eat Iboga root. Now they’ll do that and they’ll eat small amounts which are stimulating doses but when they go through their rite of passage they’ll eat a large dose which actually takes them to the point of death. They call it the small death. And in that you’ll have a mother and father within the ritual and they’ll take you through the whole sort of 3 to 5 day process and stay with you throughout that. But that only happens once in your life or twice if you’re going to become a priest in this sort of area. The religion that uses it is called the Bwiti. And they’re scattered across 3 countries. And they will use it differently in each country, so sometimes the rite of passage may be  aged 16 or 17. Sometimes it might be 23 or sometimes it’s somebody that finds the religion at 30 and your entrance into that religion will happen at whatever point you do that.​

The full text of the video shows no violation of community standards, so how did YouTube reach their conclusion so abruptly and without explanation? On the About page of the YouTube website, it states, “YouTube provides a forum for people to connect, inform, and inspire others across the globe and acts as a distribution platform for original content creators and advertisers large and small.’’ If they are suppressing content and erasing videos simply because said material doesn’t fit with a moralistic, Judeo-Christian standard, then it betrays their stated mission to be a global and unbiased platform for people to post their video content.

What YouTube did next, again without explanation, whether by machine censors or real people censors shows us that something is seriously broken with their system.

On December 10th, just a week after the initial flag and removal of the video about the sacramental use of Iboga, the Know Drugs team discovered their entire channel, comprising over 450 videos had been removed by YouTube. Years of research and production had gone into these films and the comment threads for them held valuable data. The KD team were understandably shaken. They were unable to write to anyone at YouTube as the only options presented to them were generic URLs which provided ‘bounce-back’ information.

The generic message stated that ‘’YouTube staff review flagged videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate our Community Guidelines. When a video or account is brought to our attention we investigate and take action if necessary.’’

Then three days later Know Drugs received this message - 'Thanks for your email. Your “KnowDrugsdotNet” account has been found to have violated our Community Guidelines. Your account has now been terminated. Please be aware that you are prohibited from accessing, possessing or creating any other YouTube accounts.'

Know Drugs’s supporters started a Twitter campaign talking about YouTube censorship of the channel. Then, three days after its closure, an unsolicited email arrived which directly contradicted the first two messages from YouTube. In this email YouTube seemed to have had a change of heart, informing Know Drugs that they had reviewed the channel again and have found that the content is not in violation of Community Guidelines and that they have been reinstated as a YouTube channel holder in good standing. Excited to see their work returned and an end to this unfortunate episode the KD team were shocked to find that only five videos had been returned to their rightful place on the KnowDrugsdotNet YouTube Channel.  

Ninety nine percent of the content had been erased without explanation and in direct contradiction of this last, generic, email - “We have unsuspended your account. This means your account is once again active and operational, and in good standing.”

Google have stated their “mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." Yet it’s subsidiary YouTube has chosen to delete, without cause, the grand majority of a prolific, original content channel filled with in-depth interviews about one of the most important issues facing people in this age, or any age: the complex relationship between human beings and psychoactive substances.

Some have argued that since YouTube provides its service for free, the customer must expect their work to be taken down at whim and without explanation. When you deal with a major corporation, who host millions of videos every day you must expect to count for nothing and to have no rights whatsoever.  And perhaps this a reminder of the price of ‘free’. But these videos have not been taken down entirely at random. The fact that this YouTube channel name had the word ‘drugs’ in it, suggests that someone, without actually viewing the content, decided to err on the side of caution once a video had been flagged as potentially problematic, and pressed the ‘remove’ button.  

YouTube do not want to stand accused of censorship: that would present them with all kinds of problems explaining many of the inappropriate videos remaining on their site. But in this instance something has gone wrong and the corporate entity is using it’s vastness to remain unanswerable for its actions. Whether by accidental oversight or deliberate action this is a case of censorship through the back door.  

At the front door, however, YouTube stand firmly in favour of free speech in the name of democracy.  In 2010, when refusing to comply with Australia’s ‘refused classification’ system, YouTube stated that exposing euthenasia, graffiti, drug use, and other such ‘topics to public debate is vital for democracy’.

More recently, in March 2013, YouTube started a legal battle against a Russian blacklisting law which effectively censored anything online that disagreed with the government. They lost that test case, but not without portraying themselves as arbiters of free speech. Indeed Google have been releasing transparency reports to show content removal requests, from the public and government worldwide, and more specifically, the many cases in which they have refused to censor.

If Google and YouTube are being true to these statements it’s hard to imagine why they would censor a channel dedicated to free speech - other than that it tackles the thorny subject of drugs - and does so without apology or using a euphemism for its name. Of course, the loss of video content could all be just be a technical error, but with no way for Know Drugs to find redress they have essentially been shut down.  

Graham Hancock, prolific author and Know Drugs contributor, stated in response to YouTube’s treatment, “YouTube should be championing excellent channels like KnowDrugsdotnet, not shutting them down.” He also urged YouTube to “retain their potentially valuable role as a genuinely free and open source of information, generated by the people for the people, free from state, corporate, or religious interference.”

There is rightly widespread focus on net neutrality right now, but that battle is already being fought within the existing internet for those who are attempting to champion freedom of speech in matters of altering human consciousness. This story demonstrates that it is all too easy for the monolithic corporate giants to remain unanswerable for their actions.

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