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As users expose police brutality

Monopolies seek stranglehold on YouTube

Published Jun 1, 2007 11:59 PM

YouTube, a popular Web site for free sharing of online videos, is increasingly being used by communities, youths, progressive movements and radicals worldwide to expose injustice, protest the horrors of imperialist war, and promote revolutionary ideas to a global audience.

At the same time, U.S. corporate monopolies–including YouTube’s owner, Google, and rivals like Viacom and NBC Universal–are battling to exercise control over the site’s contents and censor those voices that interfere with their goal of turning it into a profit-making machine.

Created by three former PayPal employees in 2005, YouTube now streams more than 200 million videos and adds 200,000 new videos to its library daily. It is a truly global phenomenon, with viewers outside the U.S. watching 70 percent of all videos streamed. (Associated Press, May 20)

According to the Toronto Star, the site has 40 million visitors monthly, and the number is climbing.

YouTube’s creators sold the site last year for $1.65 billion in Google stock. Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, two of the creators who remain spokespeople for YouTube, seem content to accommodate Google’s moves to introduce aggressive advertising on the site, develop software capable of censoring material objectionable to advertisers and the state, and clamp down on posting of so-called copyright-protected materials, like clips from TV shows and Hollywood films.

But the site, with its millions of users worldwide, has far outgrown the proprietary claims of any individuals or corporation. It has become a truly mass, participatory forum and should be the common property of all.

Police terror exposed

In the U.S., the most dramatic effect of mass YouTube use has been to expose cases of police brutality—incidents that otherwise would have been completely covered up by the cops or quickly silenced by the mainstream media.

And thanks to features allowing users to easily share videos, these exposures can spread like wildfire.

In November 2006, no fewer than three cases of brutality by the Los Angeles Police Department were exposed via YouTube videos.

William Cardenas was punched in the face repeatedly by cops, who accused him of being a “gang member.” The FBI was forced to open an investigation into violations of Cardenas’ civil rights after the video was widely seen. A second video showed cops beating a restrained prisoner in a police cruiser.

The third—shot on a camera phone in the University of California-Los Angeles Library—showed police shooting with taser guns Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a 23-year-old Iranian-born student, because he had forgotten his ID. The video also shows angry students demanding the cops’ names and protesting the violation of Tabatabainejad’s civil rights. A cop then threatened to attack these students, too. (MoJo Blog, Nov. 16, 2006)

Based on this video evidence, Tabatabainejad has now brought a lawsuit against the LAPD.

These exposures have sown fear among cops and concern throughout the capitalist state. In today’s world of high technology combined with growing repression, every worker is a potential George Holliday—the amateur videographer who captured the brutal LAPD beating of Rodney King in 1991.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to Los Angeles. From Pennsylvania to Florida, from Middleport, N.Y., to Denver, YouTube has been used as a platform to expose cop terror.

After Michigan State University students were arrested protesting a Minuteman bigot in East Lansing on April 19, organizers posted videos showing the police use of excessive force, witness statements, and interviews with university administrators exposing their collaboration with the racists.

And when police attacked immigrant rights demonstrators in both Los Angeles and New York on May Day, YouTube was used to rapidly spread the word.

Outside the U.S., forces fighting back against imperialism have adopted the medium as well. You can watch videos explaining the views, methods and aims of the revolutionary movement in Nepal, witness May Day marches in India and Turkey, or watch subtitled films from Cultural Revolution-era China that are unlikely to ever see commercial release on DVD.

Corporate media in the U.S. and Israel reacted with outrage in May when clips of “Tomorrow’s Pioneers” appeared on YouTube. This children’s show, produced by the Palestinian Hamas movement, promotes resistance to U.S. imperialism and Israeli occupation and is hosted by a Mickey Mouse-like character called Farfur.

Pentagon hypocrisy

Of course, it’s not only anti-imperialists who are using this technology. The Minutemen and other Klan types use it. And now the Pentagon has joined in, hoping to exploit YouTube as a recruiting device by showing clips of U.S. troops triumphant in battles with “the enemy” in Iraq.

The Pentagon launched the “Multi-National Forces Iraq” channel in March. The Los Angeles Times reported that the channel was viewed more than 120,000 times in its first month.

Now–not coincidentally—the Defense Department has put a blanket ban on the use of YouTube and 12 other popular information-sharing sites by U.S. military personnel.

CNN reported May 14: “Iraqi insurgents and their supporters have been posting videos on YouTube at least since last fall. The Army recently began posting videos on YouTube showing soldiers defeating insurgents and befriending Iraqis.

“But the new rules mean many military personnel won’t be able to watch those achievements–at least not on military computers. ... Defense Department computers and networks are the only ones available to many soldiers and sailors in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Nobody’s buying the government’s claim that the ban is needed to save Defense Department bandwidth. It’s an obvious ploy to keep angry and demoralized U.S. troops from exposing the dire quagmire they find themselves in or posting videos of Pentagon abuses.

Many military families have expressed outrage, since these sites were one of the few ways soldiers could keep in touch with their loved ones at home.

Next up is the 2008 presidential election–already dubbed the “YouTube Election” by some mainstream pundits. Democratic Party candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are making extensive use of the site.

YouTube and MySpace, the social networking Web site owned by Rupert Murdoch, are both co-sponsoring primary debates of the Democratic and Republican candidates. (Los Angeles Times, May 20)

Battle for control

The corporate struggle to dominate YouTube and profit from its popularity has many similarities to the battle over file-sharing programs like Napster, which peaked a few years ago with music-industry lawsuits against students (in some cases, minors) for swapping music files. While free file sharing still exists, much of it has been co-opted by pay-per-song sites and file-protected CDs.

However, in the case of YouTube, there is a basis for a much broader struggle based on the mass, participatory character of video file sharing—of which the exposures of police brutality are powerful examples.

Again, the public battle lines are being drawn over the issue of “copyright protection” and “intellectual property” by mammoth media companies.

But this is really just a smokescreen. It amounts to positioning by the media monopolies for a bigger cut of the profits once a way is eventually found to turn free video sharing into a controllable, profitable business model.

The real action is going on behind the scenes–the moves to introduce a video advertising component to YouTube and to develop software to curtail the site’s free-for-all contents and make it more “advertiser friendly.”

The posture of the U.S. capitalist political establishment at this juncture seems to be to let this process of “free market censorship” play itself out rather than mount a frontal assault on those who use the site for progressive and revolutionary ends.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this will remain the case.

Who will control new technology?

Workers World wrote about file-sharing: “The controversy over Napster raises important issues for the international workers’ movement. Chief among them is: Who will control the revolutionary new technology that allows the free exchange of music, art and all kinds of information?

“Will it be dominated by capitalists seeking profit? Or will workers and oppressed people control it?” (“Napster and the right to free music,” WW, Aug. 10, 2000)

YouTube is another example of how technology has outgrown the constraints of private property and capitalism. What could be more natural than for people to freely share videos with their community, family or comrades, down the block or across the ocean?

Yet capitalism must find a way to constrain, control and censor so that the profit system isn’t compromised. The genie must be shoved back into the bottle by any means necessary.

What is needed is an international struggle for control by YouTube users, along with communities, organizations of workers and oppressed people, and unions, to ensure the right of the people to use the service, end corporate domination and rout the apologists for imperialism and racism.

It’s a fight that can’t be confined to the computer keyboard. It must come out into the streets, as exemplified by those who are using the technology today to expose police brutality.