Today on Capitol Hill, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is again testifying before Congress on how to hold tech companies accountable. She’s one of many voices calling for more regulation of the industry, which could come from dozens of bills being considered by Congress. That legislation could have a big impact on platforms like YouTube.
I recently spoke with Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube. She said the industry is already subject to regulations, both in the United States and around the world, and that Congress should be cautious as it considers new laws. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Susan Wojcicki: [New regulation] makes sense in many places, but in other places could have a number of unintended consequences. And we just want to make sure that as we work with regulators, that it achieves what they are looking for, as opposed to doing something that could be harmful, ultimately, to the creator ecosystem — like, literally millions of small businesses that are creating content. So it’s a tricky balance.
Kimberly Adams: Yeah, what do you think of calls for more transparency to your algorithm itself? Or there’s one piece of legislation that says users should be allowed to opt out of letting algorithms decide what they see.
Wojcicki: I think on transparency, we are working to be more transparent, and we are working to continue to give more visibility. I would say that for regulators, actually seeing the algorithm itself, of course, would be a very complex area, and I don’t think it would achieve what most regulators want. What would be most helpful is to talk about what are the end metrics that they would like us to optimize for. YouTube, for example, we just came out with a metric called Violative View Rate, which is the number of views that are on our platform that are violative of the policies that we’ve said that we have. And right now, it’s about 19 or 20 views in every 10,000 that would be violative of our policies. And so we’re going to continue to work to make sure that we pull down that content, but that’s a way that we are working to be more transparent.
Adams: Do you have any plans to make your algorithm more transparent and open for researchers? I get that members of Congress may not be able to dive into it, but what about experts outside of YouTube?
Wojcicki: We definitely see that there’s a need, and we’re going to continue to look into that and explore what are ways that would make sense for us to do that. We do see right now there is a large amount of research that’s already happening on YouTube. So we see a lot of researchers, a lot of Ph.D.s, professors, think tanks, institutions that write a lot of papers already about YouTube and the results, because everything we do is public. And so, we do see them doing a fair amount of work. But we certainly will continue to work and find ways to be more transparent.
Adams: Do you have a timeline on that?
Wojcicki: I mean, I think certainly we’re talking about it for 2022. We’re open to finding more ways to work with researchers, and we want to be careful about how we do it to make sure that it’s done in a productive way. But, I mean, we understand that there needs to be more transparency.
Opting out of recommendations
I realize, I didn’t answer your question beforehand about what about people who want to opt out of recommendations. I think YouTube would just be completely useless if people didn’t have recommendations. So many times I compare YouTube to a library, because we have a lot of content — it’s a video library that’s publicly available. We have 500 hours uploaded every minute to YouTube. We have a very large amount of content.
So, if you went into the Library of Congress, for example, and you didn’t have a card catalog, and you didn’t have a librarian there recommending or helping you find books, it wouldn’t be a very useful experience. Like, we could post, “Here are, like, the top 10 videos that are popular on YouTube.” But the reason people come to YouTube is because they have very specific needs. They’re looking to make a pie for Thanksgiving, or they’re looking for a specific cookie recipe, or they want to watch a James Baldwin speech. So you need to have a system that is able to help you go through large amounts of information, and then know the kind of information you’re looking for. So it’s like having a very trained librarian that knows you and says, “Oh, look, I know you came in last time and you were interested in these three individuals, or you’re interested in science. Here’s some of the latest science videos that we think you’d be interested in.” And without that, it’s not a very useful service.
Testifying in front of Congress
Adams: I’m here in Washington, D.C., and I’m struck by the fact that other tech CEOs are called here all the time to Capitol Hill to testify, but not you, even though 81% of American adults, according to Pew Research Center, use your platform. Several other researchers we talked to while preparing for this interview say that YouTube and you, specifically, have gotten kind of a pass when it comes to sort of this backlash and scrutiny of misinformation online. What do you think about that?
Wojcicki: Well, I’m always open to testifying if I’m called. There’s never been a situation where I was called and I didn’t go. I have been many times to Congress and met with many people on the Hill. Google owns YouTube, and Google is part of Alphabet. And the CEO of Google and the CEO of Alphabet is Sundar [Pichai]. So Sundar has testified a number of times, and he has answered many questions about YouTube. And I certainly, if I were asked or needed to attend, I certainly would be there. I think it’s more that people, a lot of times, have wanted to have the questions about Google and Alphabet as a whole, and that’s why Sundar has testified a number of times.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
Here’s a link to an op-ed Susan Wojcicki wrote for the Wall Street Journal in August, in which she lays out three principles she thinks should guide new tech regulation. In that piece, she also warns over-regulation will have a chilling effect on free speech. But some complain that chilling effect is already happening online. We heard that from Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, whom I interviewed last month about tech regulation.
And for some context on the power of YouTube in society, check out the New York Times podcast from last year, “Rabbit Hole,” about what happens when the algorithms that feed you videos take you down a dark path.
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