Facebook Has Locked Out YouTube Videos

Want to share a YouTube video with your friends on Facebook?  Sorry - you can’t do that any more.  

Two billion Facebook users lost viewing access to over a billion videos sometime in the last few months.  

Without asking users, and without any formal policy announcement, Facebook stopped playing YouTube videos, and those from Vimeo, Wistia, Vidyard and all other video-hosting platforms.  On Facebook, a YouTube video is no longer 'video' - it's just a hyperlinked picture. It doesn’t play.

Don’t believe me?  Leave this post; go share a YouTube or Vimeo video on Facebook, and see if it plays on Facebook.





It’s About Control

This is a massive power move in digital media, and it's gone largely unnoticed. Ascribing business motives is fairly straightforward.  Facebook has been quite public about the importance of video to their future. By rendering external video content un-playable — effectively locking it out — Facebook forces a decision on publishers of video content:  if they want any of those 2 billion people to view their video content on Facebook, it must be uploaded to Facebook.

Video is an uncomfortable latecomer to the Web, which laid the technical groundwork for this strategic move.  Ironically (or intentionally), Facebook created a detente for video.  They created and published new 'standards' - called Open Graph - that enabled sharing between platforms.   Open Graph tags allow Web pages to describe themselves to other systems (such as Facebook) in a 'rich' fashion.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other networks extract information from user-submitted URLs based on these tags.  

Now Facebook has decided to end the detente. If you want someone to see your video, you have to hand the source video file over to Facebook. In other words, Facebook themselves no longer uses the ‘Open Graph’ standard that they published.  It would be ironic if it weren't so egregious and monopolistic.


Facebook: Not Content Neutral

Within a few weeks of this post, the US FCC may try to end the current net neutrality policies. Facebook has publicly supported net neutrality, backing the position that ISPs should remain neutral on the content of the packets they deliver.  Yet here, several levels up the technical stack, Facebook is anything but neutral; if you want to share on Facebook, you must host on Facebook. Even in the digital domain, possession matters; handing over hosting entails handing over some degree of control.

To clarify this, let’s consider measurements and metrics.  In the TV era, Neilsen installed separate boxes in thousands of living rooms because TV sets didn't report back on the channels being watched. By contrast, Internet media provides an unprecedented level of visibility into use, because information flows both ways.  On the net, every page, image and video you view reports back on that viewing - when, where, on what device, and more.

A business that invests in video content to reach their market can use the metrics data from that content for many things.  Are people watching; when, where and on what?  Are they browsing or looking or buying based on what they watch?  Which content do they like more?

With Facebook's move on video embeds, businesses now have only one hosting option for the kind of content (video) most desired by a valuable market of two billion people, and only one source for the services, such as metrics, that go with that access - Facebook itself.

How big is the business of serving every single video viewable by the majority of the world's Internet users, on the attention platform they use most?  Can any business choose not to sign up for this 'free' hosting arrangement? One wonders. To my mind, at least, this is a very big signal of monopsony behavior by Facebook.


Boardwalk, Park Place, Monopsony

Adults and board-game children all know what a monopoly is; 'sole seller', or single-control selling of something.  Monopoly, we've said for a hundred years, is generally bad.  Monopsony is 'sole buyer', the control of demand, and we've said so little about it that it's generally regarded as a typo.  

Consumers don't pay Facebook to use Facebook; there is no rent for houses and hotels when you ‘land’ there, so from a consumer's perspective, it's not a monopoly.  Facebook has managed to become the dominant ‘buyer’ of their attention and data, and hence a near-monopoly seller-of-attention to businesses, governments, non-profits, candidates and more.

Their main competitor on the sell side (digital advertising) is Google, owner of YouTube.  In the rearview mirror, Google's $1.65 billion buyout of YouTube was brilliant; it gave Google dominance on online video for nearly a decade.  

To their credit, though, Google didn't monopolize that position in video.  Users could embed videos from other sources on Google-hosted web pages; businesses could improve their Google search positioning by providing Vimeo or Wistia video content.

But strategically, the sheer volume and habit of YouTube places a large boulder on the road to video dominance that Facebook has set for itself - which brings us back to video embeds on Facebook.


You’ll Watch What We Control

Removing YouTube videos from Facebook - which is essentially what has happened - assumes that people who use Facebook will stay within the walled garden (monopsony), even if they see less YouTube content.  It assumes that most of the companies and people who seek attention by producing and distributing video content will, in light of that attention monopsony, have little choice but to duplicate their video files and upload them to Facebook to get access to those 2 billion users.

The smaller video middlemen - the Vimeo, Wistia & Vidyards - are collateral damage in the match, but unlike Google, video hosting is their main or even sole business.  I'd expect to see them acquiesce, over time; one or more will start providing "Facebook upload, too".  Then, subject to Facebook's APIs, one or more will aim to build value-added services on top of Facebook video hosting.  

But Facebook will get the video files, and with that, a substantial amount of control.  If in 3 or 5 years Facebook introduces charges for video hosting, will businesses have any choice or say in the matter? With no consumers crying “monopoly”, will those businesses have any regulatory recourse?

As a  gnat-sized business on this field, we've already adapted.  Our Vid.One service was built to share videos on Facebook via OpenGraph tags. A month or so ago - oops, Facebook doesn’t seem to use that OpenGraph standard from Facebook any more!  Now we upload to Facebook because our customers want their video to play on Facebook and don't care how.  (In other words, we had to act by the monopsony’s rules.)  We’ve also spent (precious) development resources adapting other services we provide to partners.  Moving from open to closed doesn't sit well, but there are 2 billion reasons to do it.


Is It Just Monopsony Money?

Turning off a billion or so videos for two billion people; is that a little thing, or a big thing?  As a technology issue, it looks pretty small and esoteric - so small that, as far as I can see, neither press nor government has taken any interest.  For Facebook's users - who haven't rebelled over this - it seems to have been largely invisible.  I suspect people have tried posting YouTube videos like they used to; if they noticed the new behavior (i.e. it really isn't a video now), what can they do about it?

Facebook is a private company, under private (individual) control.  They can do what they judge best for their business.  It's doubtful that many people are upset because their Facebook feed is showing fewer YouTube videos.  In a world with far more content than attention, nobody is going to notice - as far as I can tell, almost nobody has noticed.

At an ethical and cultural level, though, this is a bothersome precedent and a disturbing moment.  Advances borne of science and technology are creating an abundance of many things, but they really can't alter the basic human quotient of attention and interest.  

“Share” is one of the three actions available on Facebook posts, and “share with your friends” is a decent characterization of Facebook’s promise to its users.  The stuff that you share - the words, pictures and videos - power the cycle of attention that makes Facebook a business.  Content is the currency of attention.

Now Facebook has changed the rules to say “you have to use our currency.”  The open, you-decide connotations of “share” are quietly subverted.  If you want to play in our attention game, you have to use our Monopsony money.  

For a dominant company to build its position on open and neutral standards, and then to selectively close access and subvert standards without question, at no clear benefit to any but itself, should demand more debate.  Regardless of the wording of shareholder documents, should one person decide what 2 billion people can see?  Should one company be able to insist that all visible content be entirely under that company's control?

Whatever the internal business rationales, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t driven by requests from Facebook users. Two billion people haven’t been complaining about the fact that it was easy to share content from other platforms.  They didn’t say “Hey, please force me to upload to your platform.”  But here’s the punch line, in Facebook’s own words (https://www.facebook.com/terms):


You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:
  1. For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.


Whether those same terms applied to a shared YouTube video a few months back isn’t clear - but at least YouTube’s lawyers would be involved in sorting that out. 

Want to share a video with your friends on Facebook?  Now, you have to upload it.  If even 1 person watches it, Facebook can use it as long as they want, anywhere they want, at no royalty or obligation to you.

At least text is still - for now - an open standard.  If you think this is worth more people reading and understanding, do share it on Facebook. Thanks.  #irony


Matthew Dunn, PhD, is Chief Explainer at Say It Visually, creators of Vid.One.

©2017, Say It Visually, Inc.