YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki defended her company’s efforts to keep violent content off the video platform at the sixth annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit Friday in San Francisco. Wojcicki was interviewed by New York Times columnist Kara Swisher, who took the YouTube leader to task for the platform’s failure to keep dangerous content away from kids. Last week reports emerged that scenes describing how to commit suicide were spliced into YouTube videos aimed at children, only the latest example in a long list of troublesome content plaguing the platform.
“We take kids’ safety incredibly seriously, and I would say that the last two years have really been focused on the responsibility of our platforms,” said Wojcicki. “I’m a mom, I have five kids from 4 to 19,” she explained to the crowd filling the Castro Theatre, one of San Francisco’s oldest movie houses. “I understand kids, and as a parent I really want to do the right thing.”
Following the latest controversy, YouTube again changed its policies regarding content that features children, eliminating comments on videos featuring young minors, or older minors engaged in risky behavior. She said some creators may be upset that their videos won’t be the subject of comments. “This change takes away that ability from people who are innocent,” she said. “But this is a decision we made because we want to prioritize children’s safety.” Earlier this year, YouTube said it would change its algorithm to recommend less content that might be harmful.
About 500 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. In the third quarter of 2018, the company removed nearly 8 million videos with problematic content from the site, 75 percent of which were identified by machine-learning systems, Wojcicki said. Most of those videos didn’t have a single view. (A report covering the fourth quarter is due soon, she said.)
During Friday’s conference, Swisher lamented that her teenage son was able to land on neo-Nazi propaganda after a few clicks on YouTube: “I said, ‘I’m going to kill Susan Wojcicki.’ It feels like all of you tech companies built these beautiful cities, but you decided to not put in police, fire, garbage…” Do tech companies have a sense of the impact they’re having, Swisher asked, and do they need regulation to deal with it? “We use the analogy of a city too,” Wojcicki said. She said some of the problems of YouTube and other platforms stemmed from their rapid growth. “We were this smaller city, and everybody knew each other on the internet, and very quickly we grew to this major metropolitan city,” she said. “Google has committed to having 10,000 people dealing with controversial content. We have already made a huge difference, and we will continue.”
Following the conference’s focus on inclusion—80 percent of Lesbians Who Tech speakers are queer women, 50 percent are women of color, 15 percent are transgender or gender non-conforming—Swisher also grilled Wojcicki about her company’s diversity efforts. Wojcicki mentioned a 2017 story she’d written for Vanity Fair called “How to Break Up the Silicon Valley Boys’ Club.” “The first point I made was that it has to come from the CEO level,” Wojcicki said. “The CEO has to make it a priority; they have to say, I’m going to meet with the underrepresented groups, I’m going to focus on having a diverse management team.”
When she joined YouTube in 2014, Wojcicki said, the company’s management team was 15 percent women; today, it’s 30 percent women. “I’ve been really focused on diversity at YouTube and on bringing more leaders and women and people of color and underrepresented minorities.”
Last fall Google employees staged a walkout in response, in part, to a New York Times report that the company paid Android creator Andy Rubin $90 million to exit the company following accusations of sexual misconduct. Following the protest, Google eliminated a requirement for binding arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination claims, pledged to end pay inequity, and to revamp the process employees use to report sexual misconduct. “I don’t want to say that everything is solved, but there were a lot of changes that were made quickly,” said Wojcicki.
As part of the protest, employees demanded that Google appoint an employee to its board. Pressed by Swisher, Wojcicki, who does not sit on the board of Google parent Alphabet but does serve on Salesforce’s board, wouldn’t say whether she supports this move, which Google has declined to make.
Lesbians Who Tech calls itself the largest LGBTQ professional in the event in the world; the organization holds conferences in San Francisco and New York, with smaller gatherings in 40 cities globally. About 6,000 people are attending this weekend’s gathering in San Francisco. In addition to Wojcicki, speakers on Friday included Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), San Francisco Mayor London Breed, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and rising Democratic Party star Stacey Abrams, and Emerson Collective founder Laurene Powell Jobs. The event also featured sessions on scaling venture-backed companies, cybersecurity best practices, building serverless applications, and imposter syndrome. The group offers a coding and scholarship fund named for Edie Windsor, the late IBM computer programmer whose efforts to force the US government to recognize her same-sex marriage led to a landmark 2013 Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage nationally.
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