A place to me to dive a little deeper about computers, science, math, art, music, or whatever else I want.

YouTube, The Library of Babel, and Section 230

Imagine if a library had something to say. How would it tell you?

by Aaron Tagliaboschi
6 December 2020

In a tiny paragraph tucked is into vaguely uselessly named bill, Communications Decency Act, is Section 230. Part (c)(3) reads:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

It’s a surprisingly straightforward and fairly easy to understand piece of legislature, and it’s been fairly important in recent years as various “interactive computer services” have grown far beyond the feasibility, or even possibility, of human moderation in its current form, but also there’s something missing, I think.

Consider that there are approximately 500 hours of video uploaded…When you read that number, what scale did you put it at? 500 hours a day seems a little small… an hour maybe?

There are 500 hours of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute. A truly incomprehensible amount. At about 720,000 a day, about 6 hours of video a day per person (which is still stretching it considering what level of psychological harm you’ve have to watch out for) that’s 120,000 people, properly trained because anything, anything that’s missed could make YouTube legally liable.

But there’s another emergent property of having that vast of a collection of videos. I’m reminded of a thought experiment that has captivated me for as long as I’ve known about it.

Imagine a library. A library so infinite that, while it almost certainly has an end somewhere, no one’s managed to get there yet. In this library is a set of books, each unique, combined representing every combination of letters that can reasonably fit. Everything from a single letter to tombs, incomprehensible and vast. Almost every book is complete gibberish, but every once in a while is a real gem. It gets even better if you know the organizational structure.

What if you wanted to write a book? Create something from scratch? Think of a word. The first word. Now go find the book with that word. Now find the next word. So on and so forth until you have a first draft. Revise, edit, and soon enough you’ll be finished

You’ll have discovered a complete book by you off of the shelf, already written, gathering dust as it always was. Some may argue you didn’t need to write anything in the first place. Just find a good one.

Consider that any opinion on a subject is recorded somewhere on YouTube. From opinions you agree with, to ones you don’t. From subtle, beautiful logiced and reasoned, to filled with lies, to filled with mistakes to make it incomprehensible, to the most insidious of all; filled with mistakes, but unnoticed.

According to Section 230, as long as YouTube doesn’t create, it’s not liable. And it doesn’t, it simply picks the right books off the shelf. Hope it finds a good one.

Imagine if the library had something to say. How would it tell you?