Content creators on the popular video platform are uniting against YouTube in an effort to change company policies they consider unfair. Supported by Germany's biggest labor union they are threatening to sue.
If you want to believe Europe's largest trade union — Germany's IG Metall metalworkers' union, which has 2.3 million members — time is running out for the world's largest digital video platform. IG Metall has teamed up with German YouTuber Jörg Sprave, who produces viral videos of himself firing off on, among other things, IKEA pencils and condoms on The Slingshot Channel.
The unlikely alliance of metalworkers and gig workers has a clock on their Fairtube.info website counting down the minutes and seconds until an ultimatum set for the social media giant to meet their demands.
"It's now up to YouTube if they want to react or not," says Robert Fuss, the labor union representative in charge of the campaign. IG Metall was prepared for all possible scenarios he tells DW: "If they want to negotiate, we are, of course, willing to enter into talks. But if they refuse, we are willing to raise the pressure on them."
IG Metall and Jörg Sprave, who has also founded the YouTuber Union Facebook group to foster his goals, have made it quite clear that raising the pressure means first and foremost suing Google, the parent company of YouTube. They accuse the tech giant of violating YouTubers' data privacy and labor rights.
The video platform has refused to comment on the ultimatum, saying only that it was in "close and permanent contact with its YouTube creators" via its annual gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people publishing on the platform.
Slingshot versus cannon
At first glance the Fairtube alliance may seem surprising as it brings together organized labor and a loose network of gig economy workers. And indeed, the demands it has made are not about holiday entitlements or pay increases.
What it wants is more transparency regarding YouTube's ad policy, notably about the algorithms used to place ads alongside uploaded content. IG Metall's Robert Fuss says "transparency and openness are key labor demands" relevant across economic sectors and professions.
For Jörg Sprave meanwhile YouTube's opaque ad policy has become a matter of survival as it threatens his channel. On YouTube, the 54-year-old German has 2.2 million regular subscribers. That earned him a fairly good living until 2017 when YouTube suddenly started to "demonetize" his videos — meaning they stopped running ads on his channel, cutting off a crucial stream of ad revenue.
Dream job turns into a nightmare
"Being a YouTuber is a dream job for many young people," Sprave says in one of his most recent videos, only to add that for him it has turned into "a nightmare" because the company is to blame that he "can no longer earn a living from posting YouTube videos."
YouTube explained the 2017 change to its ad rules came in response to complaints by brands that their ads were being shown alongside "inappropriate" content. But creators like Sprave aren't explicitly told what rules they breached when a clip becomes ineligible for ads.
Evidence that the problem is rampant within the community comes from the fact that membership in Sprave's YouTuber Union has grown to 22,000 over the past year. He also enjoys support in his struggle on other social media platforms such as Facebook.
"It seems that YouTube doesn't want any independent content providers on its platform anymore," Sprave says as he accuses YouTube of censorship of "normal people" to the benefit of celebrities and big media outlets.
A call for transparency
Sprave, however, also admits that recent legislation requiring social media outlets ban violent, racist and discriminatory content is making life harder for YouTube and others. Fines of up to €5 million ($5.5 million) in Germany for failing to delete such content quickly enough are hurting, he says.
Nevertheless, YouTube has to unveil its rules governing such bans and decisions to demonetize certain channels, he demands. Moreover, the platform should create an independent mediation panel for such cases, and a "creators' board" which should have a say in YouTube's ad rules.
YouTube says that its creators are not officially company employees. But IG Metall's Robert Fuss argues that many of them are bound to the platform through a strong band of dependency.
"Of course, creators are not forced to upload a new video daily at exactly the right time. But they are permanently forced to feed fresh material if they don't want to slip in their ranking," Fuss argues, which effectively means that they are subject to the company's unclear rules.
Health insurance for YouTubers?
IG Metall is planning to use its deep pockets and army of lawyers to pursue several legal options. One is to make the courts declare creators' work as "pseudo self-employment," which is not allowed under German law. It means that a self-employed worker is largely dependent on just one company, which controls and commissions work.
Should a German court rule that YouTube work constitutes pseudo self-employment the digital platform could even be forced to pay social security premiums for its creators and give them full labor rights such as paid holidays and sick pay. Labor rights experts say, however, that such a ruling is highly unlikely.
The union could also claim that decisions made to demonetize a video with no explanation contravene the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation. One part of these rules introduced last year gives people the right to know whether their personal data is being processed, for what purpose and to request a copy of it all. The union argues that algorithms deciding to stop ads being attached to a clip generate such data.
Unions and the gig economy
Within the YouTuber community though, the German initiative against the video platform is not going down well with everyone. David Hain and Robin Blase, who run a podcast called "Lästerschwestern" (Gossip sisters), said recently that they know hardly any YouTuber capable of making a living from the ads attached to their videos. "This may be true for Jörg Sprave, but definitely not for us," the popular bloggers say.
At the same time, IG Metall and YouTuber Union are inviting creators to become members. It's a remarkable precedent. While labor unions have already represented others who aren't salaried employees of tech firms – ride hailing drivers and other gig economy participants, for instance – IG Metall is trying to organize a disparate group which provides a less tangible service.
Unions are ultimately fearful that disruption from digital platforms could unravel much of the progress they've made in improving labor conditions over the past century.
Labor representative Robert Fuss strongly believes that this must be possible in the era of digital media too. "Solidarity and justice must be ensured under all conditions and in every society. If societies change, we need to continue to fight for those values even under changing conditions," he says.
So far, IG Metall is primarily banking on voluntary commitments by gig industries to meet certain labor standards. It has worked out conduct rules together with smaller digital platforms such as Clickworker, Crowd Guru and Bugfinders. But taking on an industry heavyweight like YouTube sure looks like a long and painful fight.