It's probably not a surprise to anyone that YouTube is a wild frontier for media - and not so much in the exciting, frontiersman sense, as in the lawless, anything-goes, tread-carefully sense. In the past couple of years the chummy, everyman image of many YouTubers has been challenged, albeit not notably blemished, by successive revelations of dishonesty and corruption. YouTubers - not all of them, but many, including some of the most popular - have taken undeclared payments to promote games on their channels. Some have taken massive kickbacks or enjoyed huge perks from game marketing firms, again without declaring them to their viewers. Some have had undeclared commercial arrangements with developers. When this behaviour is exposed, the responsible YouTubers have generally done the absolute bare minimum to avoid actual prosecution - a note about the commercial relationship buried at the bottom of the video description is the usual "fix".
Not one YouTuber, that I know of, has seen their following or their career sink significantly after such revelations. There's something teflon, in games media as much as in politics or any other public sphere, about the "hey guys, I'm just one of you, ordinary Joe everyman!" schtick. Revealing that someone has actually been taking cash and favours from corporations in return for lying to their viewers should puncture that, but the illusion of an actual relationship, even a friendship, with this cheerful chap beaming into his webcam is a powerful one for the vast majority of viewers. Pointing out the dishonesty of the broadcaster becomes interpreted as an attack on the very fanbase that he's been screwing over all this time.
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"YouTube has increasingly acted like a publisher and curator, not just a technology platform, and that means it has the capacity to police the underhanded, corrupt behaviour of some of its creators"
It's thus with a rather weary and cynical eye that I view the new depths of utter corruption, dishonesty and genuine, honest-to-god, I-hope-these-bastards-end-up-in-jail illegal activity which a pair of very popular YouTubers have sunk to this week. You've probably read something about this already, but just in case, here's the potted summary. Two YouTubers who are popular with the CounterStrike: Global Offensive community, Florida-based Trevor Martin ("TmarTn") and Britain-based Tom Cassel ("Syndicate") started a website allowing users to gamble using skins obtained through CS:GO's random lotteries - skins which have an actual cash value, often fairly sizeable, when sold through the Steam marketplace. The pair then created videos showing themselves gambling on the site and making sizeable winnings, while strongly suggesting that this was just a site they'd come across, recommending it to their viewers and making no mention of their ownership of the company.
This arrangement is frankly awful from so many different perspectives. The failure to disclose the business relationship behind a promotion is almost par for the course for many YouTubers now, so hardly even worthy of attention beyond a boilerplate "look, this corner of the media is really really awful" statement. What drags this further into the gutter than I've ever seen any other YouTuber go, commercially speaking, is that this is promotion for a gambling service. In many countries, including the US, advertising for gambling services is strictly regulated, and these videos obeyed none of those regulations. Moreover, the service itself is illegal in a great many legal jurisdictions. Even where gambling for real money is legal, a license is generally required and careful rules must be followed regarding promotion and preventing minors from accessing the service. CSGOLotto.com, the site run by the pair, lacked such licenses, and underhanded promotion by YouTubers who undoubtedly have a large proportion of underage fans is certainly not in line with any careful rules.
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To summarise the worst-case scenario here - which is also the most likely scenario, incidentally, because this whole affair is dramatically scummy - here we have a pair of YouTubers setting up an illegal gambling company, and promoting gambling on that site, without declaring their ownership of it, to a YouTube audience comprising a large proportion of underage children. Incidentally, Cassel at least is a serial offender, previously falling foul of FTC regulations by taking money to promote the Xbox One launch and publishing videos promoting games without revealing his commercial ties to them.
"$2.3 billion dollars of illegal gambling transactions, god alone knows how many of them by minors, have been enabled by systems which Valve created and rolled out"
That YouTube needs to clean up its act should go without saying. The site, a subsidiary of the world's largest internet company, Google, has become one of the most powerful and popular media channels on the planet - and especially so with younger audiences, who often access YouTube in preference to traditional media like TV. Gaming videos are particularly huge, and many of YouTube's biggest stars fall within that sphere. In recent years, the site has increasingly engaged directly with its most popular stars and channels, working with them to extend their reach and make them more commercially viable - which, to my mind, completely destroys the argument that YouTube is just a publishing platform, ignorant and innocent of any wrongdoing perpetrated by popular creators. YouTube has increasingly acted like a publisher and curator, not just a technology platform, and that means it has the capacity to police the underhanded, corrupt behaviour of some of its creators. So far, it has shown no inclination to do so.
The CSGOLotto scam might be a turning point in that attitude; if there aren't executives at YouTube sweating heavily over the potential repercussions of this, then YouTube needs some new executives. Undisclosed commercial relationships between game streamers and game developers isn't the kind of thing that gets legislators and regulators animated. Illegal promotion for illegal gambling sites, targeting a large number of minors? You're damned right that gets legislators sitting bolt upright. That's the kind of thing that would get a TV channel's broadcast license questioned in many jurisdictions, and legislators and regulators who discover that their power over YouTube is limited or unclear in cases like this are extremely unlikely to allow that situation to stand.
It's worth noting, though, that there's another company implicated in all of this - Valve, creators of Counter-Strike and operators of the Steam marketplace that allows skin gamblers to "cash out" their winnings. One aspect of this story that seems to have taken many people by surprise is that there's a gambling scene for CS:GO skins in the first place - but there is, and it's huge. Bloomberg estimated back in April that it's accounted for around $2.3 billion dollars of transactions thus far.
I love Steam as a retail service and I love Valve as a game developer, but I've railed before at the company's inability or unwillingness to police and fix negative behaviour that arises on the Steam storefront - and this is just another example of that. $2.3 billion dollars of illegal gambling transactions, god alone knows how many of them by minors, have been enabled by systems which Valve created and rolled out. The fig leaf of legitimacy claimed by CS:GO gambling, that it's simply wagering virtual items, not real money, is torn away entirely by the marketplace Valve has created to allow the sale of such items. In fact, that same fig leaf of legitimacy is used in another gambling field - it's the excuse that Japan's yakuza make in order to claim that the pachinko industry is legal and above board despite the country's anti-gambling laws. You never win money in pachinko, you see; you win a toy, or some chocolates, and there just happens to be a poky little office next door where a man with bad taste in shirts and sunglasses will swap that for a surprising amount of money. I guess he really likes cheap chocolates.
"Either Valve doesn't know about this gambling, which would be a pretty massive oversight that draws into question the company's competence to run its own service; or it knows and doesn't care"
Needless to say, if you're copying your business model wholesale from an organised crime syndicate, you might not be the hero of this tale. Or of any tale.
There are two options here. Either Valve doesn't know about this gambling, which would be a pretty massive oversight that draws into question the company's competence to run its own service; or it knows and doesn't care. The latter would be in line with the unfortunate, poorly thought out tech-libertarian bent of many of Valve's policy decisions over the years, but the former is also entirely possible. Should the class action suit presently being taken against Valve over CS:GO gambling actually get its day in court, perhaps we'll get to find out which is true.
While the crime - and it is quite likely an actual crime, if not several - in this instance rests firmly with the two shysters who have attempted to scam their own audiences and supporters, the reality is that short of criminal prosecution, they're unlikely to face any serious consequences for that action. That's why attention must fall to the two companies who, through inaction or lack of concern, allowed this to happen - and no doubt continue to allow other scammers free reign to abuse and defraud victims on their platforms. Google/YouTube and Valve/Steam are the dominant platforms in their respective fields; nobody in online video is as important as Google/YouTube, and nobody in game distribution is as important as Valve/Steam. Perhaps each of those companies could check among their staff to see if they employ any Spider-Man fans who could let them know what's meant to come with such great power?