McCain/YouTube Dustup Indicates Importance of Political Web Video

ClickZ_Campaign08_katefinal.jpg YouTube isn’t about to change its policy on removing videos for John McCain or anyone else. In a letter sent to the Google-owned site Monday, the Senator’s presidential campaign contends YouTube is “chilling political speech” by taking down some of its videos based on “meritless copyright claims.” YouTube’s answer, in so many words: “tough luck.”

The McCain campaign request should give pause to anyone questioning the importance of Web video for political campaigns.

YouTube should “commit to a full legal review of all takedown notices on videos posted from accounts controlled by (at least) political candidates and campaigns,” wrote John McCain for President General Counsel Trevor Potter in a Monday missive, sent to YouTube CEO Chad Hurley and the general ounsels of YouTube and Google, and copied to Barack Obama’s campaign. Potter suggested that videos uploaded to the video sharing site were removed “numerous times” unnecessarily as a result of what they believe to be disputable copyright infringement claims, most likely from media outlets.

YouTube isn’t having it. “You are operating from the position of strength, with the knowledge of exactly where the content in your videos came from,” wrote the firm’s counsel in a response dated Tuesday, suggesting several legal methods of counteracting video removal and copyright infringement claims.

“It is unknown what video McCain was referring to but usually negative ads that refer to news sources will put YouTube and other sites in a difficult spot,” explained Rajeev Kadam, CEO of Divinity Metrics, a firm that measures Web video consumption.

During the election season, YouTube has scrubbed hundreds of videos featuring content associated with John McCain or Barack Obama, according to data from Divinity Metrics. About 40 videos placed by the McCain campaign have been removed, while around 10 from the Obama camp are no longer available on the video site. Some videos may have been extracted by the campaigns themselves, however.

“We have seen a lot of blogs and TV networks peeved at the candidates using clips or their content inside their political ads, especially attack ads,” Kadam told ClickZ News. “This election especially, content owners [referencing] attack ads are being very vocal because they view that type of content as damaging to their brand and impartiality. For YouTube it a safer bet to just take them down instead of inviting a lawsuit.”

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have been subject to YouTube video cleansing. In September, a McCain campaign Web video referencing a controversial Obama comment was removed from the site. The video featured Obama making a quip about putting lipstick on a pig, in addition to footage of CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric.

Earlier this month, a video placed on YouTube by the Obama camp was also wiped away. The “Bad News” video, promoting voter registrations, combined clips of NBC anchors to make it seem as though they had declared McCain the winner of the presidential election. Reportedly, NBC requested a takedown, granted by YouTube.

“YouTube has become a critical distribution arm. Anytime that’s endangered — whether you’re the McCain campaign or a guy in your garage — it becomes an issue for you,” said Robert Greenwald, who hates to admit he’s in agreement with the McCain campaign. The progressive political filmmaker and founder of Brave New Films, an organization that has been using video placed on YouTube to fight McCain’s campaign and push progressive political ideas, has had his own run-ins with YouTube takedowns.

Several videos posted to YouTube by Brave New Films were removed following notification of copyright infringement claims from Talk Radio Network, which syndicates conservative talk shows “The Michael Savage Show,” “The Laura Ingraham Show,” and others. Among the videos was one Brave New Films had placed criticizing Savage for anti-Muslim remarks. The film outfit recently filed a lawsuit against Savage and Talk Radio Network.

“It was a disaster for us,” said Greenwald of the YouTube shutout, which he thinks prevented his organization from spreading its messages at a critical pre-election time. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this — I’m in agreement with [the McCain campaign].”

YouTube follows regulations determined by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allows content hosts to remove disputed content without being subject to copyright infringement liability. If the entity that uploaded the video in question files a “counter-notification,” the same law allows YouTube to replace the video after 10 business days if no copyright suit is filed against the uploader.

“Takedowns are a tricky thing with video sites. There is an array of technology components and humans involved in the equation,” noted Kadam, who said some large companies have staff dedicated to digging up video that might damage their brands.

Recognizing the time-consuming effort involved with determining the validity of copyright infringement claims before videos are removed, the McCain campaign suggested YouTube proceed with a legal review of takedown notices only when they pertain to videos from political candidates or campaigns.

YouTube essentially called that proposal unfair. “We try to be careful not to favor one category of content on our site over others, and to treat all of our users fairly, regardless of whether they are an individual, a large corporation or a candidate for public office.”

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