Over the weekend, Google CEO Sundar Pichai gave an interview to CNN in which he admitted to exactly what we’ve been screaming over and over again for a few years now: it’s literally impossible to do content moderation at scale perfectly. This is for a variety of reasons: first off, no one agrees what is the “correct” level of moderation. Ask 100 people and you will likely get 100 different answers (I know this, because we did this). What many people think must be mostly “black and white” choices actually has a tremendous amount of gray. Second, even if there were clear and easy choices to make (which there are not), at the scale of most major platforms, even a tiny error rate (of either false positives or false negatives) will still be a very large absolute number of mistakes.
So Pichai’s comments to CNN shouldn’t be seen as controversial, so much as they are explaining how large numbers work:
“It’s one of those things in which let’s say we are getting it right over 99% of the time. You’ll still be able to find examples. Our goal is to take that to a very, very small percentage, well below 1%,” he added.
This shouldn’t be that complex. YouTube’s most recent stats say that over 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Assuming, conservatively, that the average YouTube video is 5 minutes (Comscore recently put the number at 4.4 minutes per video) that means around 6,000 videos uploaded every minute. That means about 8.6 million videos per day. And somewhere in the range of 250 million new videos in a month. Now, let’s say that Google is actually 99.99% “accurate” (again, a non-existent and impossible standard) in its content moderation efforts. That would still mean ~26,000 “mistakes” in a month. And, I’m sure, eventually some people could come along and find 100 to 200 of those mistakes and make a big story out of how “bad” Google/YouTube are at moderating. But, the issue is not so much the quality of moderation, but the large numbers.
Anyway, that all seems fairly straightforward, but of course, because it’s Google, nothing is straightforward, and CNBC decided to take this story and spin it hyperbolicly as Google CEO Sundar Pichai: YouTube is too big to fix. That, of course, is not what he’s saying at all. But, of course, it’s already being picked up on by various folks to prove that Google is obviously too big and needs to be broken up.
Of course, what no one will actually discuss is how you would solve this problem of the law of large numbers. You can break up Google, sure, but unless you think that consumers will suddenly shift so that not too many of them use any particular video platform, whatever leading video platforms there are will always have this general challenge. The issue is not that YouTube is “too big to fix,” but simply that any platform with that much content is going to make some moderation mistakes — and, with so much content, in absolute terms, even if the moderation efforts are pretty “accurate” you’ll still find a ton of those mistakes.
I’ve long argued that a better solution is for these companies to open up their platforms to allow user empowerment and competition at the filtering level, so that various 3rd parties could effectively “compete” to see who’s better at moderating (and to allow end users to opt-in to what kind of moderation they want), but that’s got nothing to do with a platform being “too big” or needing “fixing.” It’s a recognition that — as stated at the outset — there is no “right” way to moderate content, and no one will agree on what’s proper. In such a world, having a single standard will never make sense, so we might as well have many competing ones. But it’s hard to see how that’s a problem of being “too big.”