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

For more than a week, a corner of YouTube frequented by Kazakh dissidents and keen human rights observers in Xinjiang has only been accessed intermittently.

On June 15, the YouTube channel Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights shut down, its video feed replaced by a vague statement that the channel had been “terminated for breaking the rules of the YouTube community.” A few days later, he was reinstated without a public explanation. Then, a few days later, 12 of the channel’s first videos disappeared from its public feed.

Atajurt collects and publishes video testimonies from family members of people imprisoned in Chinese internment camps in Xinjiang. In order to ensure the credibility of these video statements, each public testimony presents proof of identity of the person testifying and of the detained relatives. It also underlines the integrity of the organization, says Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent Kazakh activist and owner of the channel.

Atajurt has collected thousands of video testimonies from family members of Turkish Muslims missing in Xinjiang. Witnesses show their ID to prove they are real people.

Accuracy is especially important not only because so little information comes from Xinjiang, but also because the testimonies are often criticized by supporters of the Chinese Communist Party – who Bilash says are seeking an excuse to deny what the Nations United have called “serious human rights violations” in the province.

After being published by Atajurt, the information in the videos is then used by other organizations such as the Xinjiang Victims Database, which documents places of detention, worst-affected communities and missing persons. A representative of the Xinjiang Victims Database told MIT Technology Review that the project linked to Atajurt’s videos “thousands of times.”

For years these videos – which date back to 2018 – haven’t been a problem, at least from YouTube’s perspective. That changed last week.

“A thorough examination”

“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. in the world. We also have policies that do not allow channels to post personally identifiable information, in order to avoid harassment.

Image from iOS 7 How YouTube's rules are used to silence human rights activists
Some videos, like this one, have been forcibly deprived by YouTube after being flagged for violating its “violent criminal organizations” policy.

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

Nonetheless, shortly after MIT Technology Review sent out a list of questions about the June 15 withdrawal and its content moderation policies more generally, YouTube reversed its position. “After careful consideration of the background to the video,” he re-established 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 in order to restore them. “

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