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How YouTube’s rules are used to silence human rights activists

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For over a week now, a corner of YouTube frequented by Kazakh dissidents and close observers of human rights in Xinjiang has been only intermittently available.

On June 15, the YouTube channel Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights went dark, its feed of videos replaced by a vague statement that the channel had been “terminated for violating YouTube’s community guidelines.” A few days later, it was reinstated without public explanation. Then, several days after that, 12 of the channel’s earliest videos disappeared from its public feed. 

Atajurt collects and publishes video testimonies from family members of people imprisoned in China’s internment camps in Xinjiang. To ensure the credibility of these video statements, each public testimony shows proof of identity for the person testifying and the detained relatives. This also underscores the organization’s integrity, says Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent Kazakh activist and the owner of the channel. 

Atajurt has collected thousands of video testimonies from family members of Turkic Muslims who have disappeared in Xinjiang. Witnesses show their identification to prove they are real people.

Accuracy is especially important not just because so little information is coming out of Xinjiang, but also because testimonies often face criticism from supporters of the Chinese Communist Party—who, Bilash says, are looking for any excuse to deny what the United Nations has called “grave human rights abuses” in the province.

After being published by Atajurt, the information in the videos is then used by other organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Xinjiang Victims Database, which documents where detentions are occurring, which communities are most affected, and who has disappeared. One representative of Xinjiang Victims Database told MIT Technology Review that the project linked to the Atajurt videos “thousands of times.”

For years, these videos—which date back as far as 2018—have not been a problem, at least not from YouTube’s perspective. That changed last week. 

“A thorough review”

“We have strict policies that prohibit harassment on YouTube, including doxing,” a YouTube representative told MIT Technology Review on Friday, later adding, “We welcome responsible efforts to document important human rights cases around the world. We also have policies that do not allow channels to publish personally identifiable information, in order to prevent harassment.”

How YouTube's rules are used to silence human rights activists 2
Some videos, like this one, were forcibly turned private by YouTube after being reported for violating its “violent criminal organizations” policy.

This was likely a reference to Atajurt’s display of identity documents, which it uses to confirm the veracity of people’s testimonies. 

Nevertheless, shortly after MIT Technology Review sent a list of questions about the June 15 takedown, and its content moderation policies more broadly, YouTube reversed its position. “After thorough review of the context of the video,” it reinstated the channel “with a warning,” a company representative wrote in an email. “We … are working closely with this organization so that they can remove Personally Identifiable Information from their videos to reinstate them.”

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