YouTube Pulls North Korean Videos Used for Research

By Jack Nicas Features Dow Jones Newswires

YouTube removed channels that broadcast North Korean state television because of legal concerns, angering North Korea experts who have used the channels for years to monitor the secretive country.

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Over the past several days, YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc.'s Google, pulled two of the most prominent channels. YouTube said it determined they might be controlled by the North Korean government and thus violate U.S. sanctions against the country.

A message posted by YouTube on one channel's page said it was removed because of a legal complaint, while another said it violated the site's "community guidelines."

"We love that YouTube is a powerful platform for documenting events and shining light on dark corners around the world, but we must comply with the law," a YouTube spokeswoman said in an email. YouTube said it removed the channels after they were brought to its attention, not because of a change to U.S. law or YouTube policy.

Researchers say the move hurts research into North Korea. Some questioned whether the U.S. sanctions law applies to the videos, which didn't have ads and thus didn't earn money. But Shea Cotton, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said he believes YouTube is likely interpreting a 2015 order from the Obama administration that prohibits providing "funds, goods, or services" to the North Korean government. "The 'services' part is what probably has YouTube spooked," he said in an email.

The channels have broadcast thousands of hours of North Korean state TV on YouTube over the past several years, researchers said, providing valuable footage of the country and its leaders. There are few, if any, other places on the internet to access such footage, and satellite connections to receive North Korean broadcasts in the U.S. are expensive and complicated, researchers said.

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"North Korea propaganda is bad by western standards. It's not going to convince anybody that this is a decent, moral or legitimate government," said Curtis Melvin, a fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "What they are doing is providing us information about their government from the inside that we can't get from other sources."

North Korean broadcasts have enabled researchers to build databases on schools, factories, government offices and military infrastructure in the country. They have used footage to locate missile-launcher factories, determine that missile tests failed, and identify nuclear targets in the U.S.

The removal of the channels not only hurts future investigations, but also undercuts years of research citing videos posted on the channels. "Every single North Korea researcher I know has seven years of bookmarks in those YouTube channels that are now totally useless," Mr. Melvin said.

Joshua Pollack, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said he and his peers primarily use satellite images from Google Earth and state TV footage posted on YouTube -- usually in conjunction -- to investigate North Korea. "It's like a knife and a fork. It's hard to eat a steak with just a knife," he said. "And Google owns both the knife and the fork."

The researchers' complaints come amid separate criticism of YouTube for pulling journalistic or academic videos related to violence in the Middle East. For instance, Syrian activists say YouTube has pulled some of their videos documenting the civil war in Syria.

Such examples have increased in recent months because YouTube widened a crackdown on extremist videos. The site added new software that proactively flags videos that appear to violate its policies, such as those that show graphic violence or nudity. YouTube also added more human reviewers to screen flagged videos.

YouTube said in many cases where journalists' videos were pulled, human reviewers erred or the footage lacked appropriate context that said it was aiming to document events rather than spread extremist ideas. YouTube said it has reinstated many such videos. A YouTube spokeswoman said in an email, "With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call."

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 14, 2017 12:42 ET (16:42 GMT)