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YouTube still has a gun problem

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, we’re talking about the U.S. gun violence epidemic and YouTube’s role in it. Plus: NSO Group’s got a sense of humor, and Gigi Sohn’s FCC nomination is imperiled.

Anti-gun reviews

When I began writing this newsletter last week, it started with a reference to the recent shooting on a New York City subway. But another three mass shootings took place over Easter weekend — two in South Carolina alone — so I had to rewrite it.

We live in a country where the shelf life on a sentence describing the most recent mass shooting is a matter of days, where more than 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries in 2020 and where the 2021 stats look poised to beat that record.

With substantive gun control a pipe dream, government officials are tinkering along the edges of the problem: President Biden recently announced a ban on ghost guns, which Republicans are now trying to block. Mayor Eric Adams has begun pushing for firearm detection tools on the subways in the wake of the attack in Sunset Park.

One gun control group, Guns Down America, is focused on a different target: YouTube.

Gun review videos draw a huge crowd on YouTube, with the platform’s top firearm influencers collectively attracting billions of views. Those reviews play a big role in influencing people’s buying decisions, said Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America, but YouTube does little to warn its users of the risks involved.

  • “Content that glamorizes firearms, that pretends that firearms are like any other consumer good, is really highly misleading. It feeds into this false notion that guns make us safer,” Volsky said.
  • The increase in gun deaths has charted alongside an increase in gun ownership during the pandemic.

Now, Volsky’s group is using YouTube to send a message to … YouTube. In a new video campaign called Guns That Work, shooting survivors give their honest reviews of the firearms their attackers used.

  • The videos mimic the tone, tenor and even the title of the gun reviews that blanket the platform.
  • In one, titled “Beretta Pistol REVIEW” a woman named Kate Ranta raves about the Beretta’s “smooth trigger pull” before flipping the script and describing how her ex-husband used one to shoot her. Another woman, Nicole Jones, tells the story of surviving 17 shots from a handgun only after giving a tutorial on ballistics.

The goal is to convince YouTube to add disclaimers to gun review videos, warning viewers of the increased risks of dying by suicide or homicide that coincide with gun ownership.

  • Volsky pointed to research on cigarette disclaimers as evidence that warning labels can work. Studies have shown, for instance, that putting graphic pictures on cigarettes increases people’s likelihood of quitting.
  • “This borrows from that knowledge base,” Volsky said. Of course, cigarettes are hardly as politicized as guns at this point, so it’s unclear whether the logic holds.

This isn’t the first time Guns Down America has engaged in a pressure campaign against a corporate giant.

  • In 2019, it was part of the network of advocates that successfully pushed Walmart to limit sales of guns and ammo after the El Paso shooting.

YouTube has been open to change in the past when it comes to gun-related content, particularly in the aftermath of major tragedies.

  • In 2018, shortly after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, the company cracked down on videos related to the sale or manufacturing of guns, ammunition and modifications.
  • Just weeks later, a shooter with an apparent grudge against the company opened fire at YouTube’s own headquarters, wounding three people before killing herself.
  • YouTube currently has restrictions on videos that link to websites that sell guns and ammunition, as well as limits on what kind of gun-related videos can include ads.

But YouTube didn’t respond to direct questions about whether it has considered disclaimers on reviews in the past or whether it might consider them in the future. YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon said that the company does allow gun reviews and demonstrations “if firearms are shown in a safe environment, like a shooting range or a clear, open area.”

Despite the progress YouTube has made, Volsky said the company still needs to take responsibility for the role that reviews play in the proliferation of guns in America — and the subsequent destruction they can cause.

— Issie Lapowsky (email | twitter)

In Washington

Gigi Sohn’s seat on the FCC still hangs in the balance, and some Democrats are facing increasing pressure to vote against her confirmation as Republicans turn the nomination into a midterm campaign issue. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal accused Sohn’s critics, who have cast her as radical, of “creat[ing] a caricature of the real person.”

In the states

Apple workers at Grand Central Terminal are collecting signatures to form a union. If the organizers are successful, it would be the first Apple retail store union. According to The Washington Post, at least three other stores are also working on unionizing.

Tech industry lobbyists have had a heavy hand in writing state privacy laws over the last year. The State Privacy and Security Coalition, in particular, has been involved in bills in Utah, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Many of these bills, critics say, are weaker and more industry-friendly than the California privacy law that started the domino effect.

How is tech setting — and measuring — its climate goals?

Net zero. Carbon offsets. Scope 3 emissions. These are just some of the terms you’ll find in Big Tech’s climate plans. Understanding what they actually mean is vital to ensuring the industry is meeting its goals — and understanding whether those goals are the right ones. We’ll talk with some of the people responsible for setting those goals as well as the experts who are monitoring them to find out what tech companies are really doing. RSVP here.


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On Protocol

Intel’s “emotion AI,” which is attempting to predict whether students are bored or distracted in school, is triggering backlash. “Students shouldn’t have to police how they look in the classroom,” Nandita Sampath, a policy analyst with Consumer Reports, told Protocol’s Kate Kaye.

States are where the action is in crypto regulation, said David London, Coinbase’s head of State and Local Public Policy. He added: “It wouldn't surprise me if you start seeing more states introduce things themselves to lean more into crypto in the coming months and years.”

Around the world

Mentions of Fox News have skyrocketed in Russian media as Russian officials echo conservative criticism of the Biden administration’s response to the war. One Russian media company pointed to a Tucker Carlson segment as evidence that “the average U.S. citizen is simply horrified by what is happening.”

NATO’s annual cyber defense exercise, Locked Shields, kicks off Tuesday in Estonia. Participants from NATO member countries will attempt to fend off fictional cyberattacks during an event that has taken on new urgency against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the threat of Russian cyberattacks.

In the media, culture and metaverse

You can now read a tranche of documents from the Facebook Papers, which Gizmodo has reviewed and redacted. The documents, shared by Frances Haugen with the SEC and Congress, cover the Jan. 6 attack, election research and more. Gizmodo plans to continue releasing additional documents.

Infowars and other businesses owned by Alex Jones filed for bankruptcyafter Jones and his companies lost defamation suits in Connecticut and Texas brought by relatives of children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting.


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Hacker humor

NSO Group “Rickrolled” WhatsApp engineers while they were scrambling to fix a flaw that the Israeli spyware company was exploiting. “There was a message in it. They were saying, ‘We know what you did, we see you,’” WhatsApp head Will Cathcart told The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow. This is just one detail in Farrow’s years-long investigation into the spyware industry, which you should absolutely read.

Thanks for reading — see you Wedneday!

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