'Huffing' Outcry Prompts YouTube to Clarify Policy


Feb. 6, 2007 — -- When Doug Fisher wrote a letter in December to YouTube ripping the video-sharing Web site for corporate irresponsibility, the New Jersey assemblyman didn't expect to hear back.

A series of YouTube videos featuring teens abusing inhalants crossed a line for the legislator, who has tried to make "huffing" a key issue in the New Jersey state legislature.

"Inhalant abuse is a growing phenomenon with kids from 12 to 14," Fisher said in an interview with ABCNEWS.com. "And it's the kids who are watching YouTube, not the parents."

Fisher introduced legislation last year that would ban the sale of keyboard cleaner, a common inhalant, to anyone under the age of 18. He also has heard from concerned constituents and visited schools where administrators -- many of them from middle schools -- describe a rise in the use of chemical-based substances to get high.

"Middle school has always been the age for the primary use of inhalants," said Harvey Weiss, director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. "These are legal products they can find in their house or their school. And many parents feel like their children won't use inhalants, so they don't talk to their kids about them."

Inhalants broadly include any substance that gives off toxic chemical vapors. When inhaled, these products can induce a mind-altered state. The abuse of inhalants, known as huffing, can attack the central nervous system and can quickly lead to heart failure.

The age group with the greatest percentage of inhalant use -- more than 17 percent -- is eighth graders, according to a 2005 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Seeing video clips of the potentially deadly behavior just a mouse click away pushed Fisher to act.

"The videos posted by YouTube users instruct and demonstrate how to abuse inhalants to the many millions of people viewing them," Fisher wrote in a Dec. 18 letter. "YouTube has a responsibility to remove any video showing the abuse of inhalants to ensure that it does not promote this inappropriate behavior among younger users that view the material."

Late last month, Fisher received a surprising response. YouTube was heeding to his demand.

In the Jan. 22 letter, Micah Schaffer, a senior specialist for YouTube's consumer operations group, informed Fisher that the Web site, in response to his letter, would change their "Community Guidelines" page to more explicitly restrict video clips featuring all types of drug abuse, including inhalants.

Currently, there is a bullet on that page that reads: "Don't post videos showing dangerous or illegal acts, like animal abuse or bomb-making."

"Since your letter brought this issue to our attention, this week we will be adding 'drug abuse' as one of the examples in our Community Guidelines," Schaffer wrote.

While Fisher said the YouTube letter is a start, he's not totally satisfied with the response just yet.

YouTube's Community Guidelines page has not been updated to reflect the promised drug abuse restriction. A search for the terms "huffing" and "marijuana" produced a range of results -- some innocuous, some suggestive and some seemingly blatant examples of drug abuse.

In one clip entitled "Freon," described by the poster as "me hittin' on some freon," a young teenager, apparently dizzy and disoriented, falls to the ground in his backyard. Freon is a common aerosol propellant that can be used as an inhalant.

Fisher also criticized YouTube's policy, described in Schaffer's letter, of allowing Web site users to monitor the content -- the same policy used by eBay and Craigslist. If visitors to the site have a problem with a specific clip, they can flag the content. A team of YouTube administrators then investigates the flagged material.

To Fisher, the company has the resources to monitor the material more thoroughly itself. He cited YouTube's multibillion dollar sale to Google, and the search engine giant's huge profits.

"They know they can afford to put 100 people on staff to answer these flagged videos," Fisher said. "You can't say 'we don't have a department,' or 'we're overwhelmed.'"

A company spokesman would not say how many YouTube staff members are assigned to monitor flagged content, but did say that the questionable clips are looked at around the clock.

Clips featuring drug abuse have always violated the Web site's terms of use, the spokesman said.

"We are fully aware these videos are inappropriate," the spokesman said. "We have always worked to remove this content once we are notified of it."

While YouTube may be legally protected by the terms of use, the issue does raise questions about Internet regulations, something that YouTube has grown accustomed to. Just last week, Viacom requested that 100,000 clips from its various networks be removed from the site.

"Law is developing for the Internet, but of course, the Internet is not like broadcast television and radio," said Christine A. Corcos, an associate professor of law at Louisiana State University. "You just can't pick up the law from the regulated industries and apply it to the Internet."

Corcos, who edits a media law blog, said that regardless of a site like YouTube's monitoring policies and terms of use, there so many clips being posted that constantly enforcing them becomes an impossibility. "Some of these sites seem uncontrolled because people upload material on them at a wild pace."

In December, Weiss, the advocate for the dangers of inhalants, found out just how hard it is for site visitors to continually monitor YouTube postings.

Weiss e-mailed the 9,000 members of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, asking them to comb through YouTube for huffing clips and request the content be stripped from the Web site -- per policy.

He said that while some of the clips were pulled by YouTube, others were not, and with 100,000 clips added to the site daily, new videos featuring the drug abuse emerged.

The clips, Weiss said, continue to anger him.

"In a lot of ways, it glamorizes huffing," he said. "It shows people that there's no consequences."

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