Father of slain WDBJ reporter takes on YouTube over video of shooting

WDBJ reporter Alison Parker in an undated image distributed by her employer. (Photo: WDBJ/Gray Television/Handout)

The father of a local television journalist gunned down during a live broadcast has filed a federal complaint against Google’s YouTube over allegations the video sharing site continues to distribute footage of the shooting.

Attorneys from the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic who represent  Andy Parker filed the complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week, alleging YouTube engages in deceptive trade practices by not adhering to its own consumer terms of service and community guidelines.

Those guidelines prevent users from uploading footage that shows graphic violence, except in limited circumstances like news reporting.

In August 2015, YouTube began removing videos from a WDBJ (Channel 7) news report that captured the moment a former employee opened fire on 24-year-old reporter Allison Parker and 27-year-old photojournalist Adam Ward as the two were interviewing a local woman. The incident was separately captured by the gunman, Vester Flanagan, on a chest-strapped GoPro camera; Flanagan uploaded the footage from this camera to his personal Twitter account.

Both the GoPro footage and the on-air broadcast spread quickly across the Internet, with hundreds of copies appearing on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in the coming days and weeks. Responding to complaints filed by the station, Mr. Parker and others, YouTube began removing exact copies of the footage for violating its terms of service.

But YouTube reportedly told Ms. Parker’s father that he needed to view each video and file a separate complaint for each copy that appeared on the platform. To date, Mr. Parker says he’s never viewed the footage of his daughter’s death but is haunted by the fact that copies remain freely available on YouTube and elsewhere.

In the complaint, Mr. Parker says YouTube asserts its not liable for damages associated with the video because it’s protected by Section 230 of the federal Communications Act, which absolves websites that allow third parties to upload and distribute content from liability. But Mr. Parker says YouTube is culpable because it’s not fulfilling consumer promises laid out in its terms of service and community guidelines, which would normally apply to the on-air broadcast and GoPro footage of the shooting.

“YouTube’s misrepresentations deceive consumers about the safety of the platform, the prevalence of graphic violence on the platform, and the difficulty of users securing the removal of violative content,” the complaint says. “These deceptions are material: if consumers knew just how ubiquitous violent content is on YouTube, how very likely they and their children are to encounter that content, or how they the consumer bear the burden of policing the site for this content, they would not use the platform. Further, if they knew that YouTube re-traumatizes the families of murder victims by requiring them to repeatedly watch their family members die if they want the video of that death removed from the Internet, they would not use the platform.”

The complaint says YouTube has the “capacity to effectively police its platform” for the type of violent content at the center of the case, but says it routinely ignores its own terms of service with respect to violent content because it makes money off those types of videos.

Mr. Parker is also taking issue with numerous videos containing conspiracy theories about his daughter’s death. Before the murder, Mr. Parker said he had an active YouTube account where he uploaded clips of his acting roles, a product commonly known as a demo reel.

Moments after the shooting, Mr. Parker said he was inundated with “threatening and distressing messages” from conspiracy theorists and other bad actors who “claimed the shooting was staged and accused him of being a paid actor pretending to be Allison’s father.”

Parker said the hoaxsters continued to harass him by re-uploading copies of the videos, some of which contain color commentary that attempt to refute several elements of the footage.

“Mr. Parker, understandably, refuses to watch these videos,” the complaint said. ” He further cannot stand the thought that videos of his daughter’s murder are being used to promote dangerous conspiracy theories, for monetary gain, or simply for pleasure or shock value.”

Others continue to distribute edited copies of the footage “purely for shock value,” the complaint said.

Ms. Parker’s death is just one of several instances in which YouTube allegedly engages in deceptive trade practices by allowing footage that violates the site’s terms of service to proliferate, the complaint says, drawing on numerous conspiracy theory videos posted about the Sandy Hook shooting and similar graphic videos depicting suicide and murder.

The complaint asks the FTC to launch an investigation into YouTube’s alleged “blatant, unrepentant consumer deception” over the graphic videos.

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