BERLIN -- Web developer Michael Kreil had seen the same YouTube message one too many times:
Unfortunately, this UMG-music-content is not available in Germany because GEMA has not granted the respective music publishing rights. Sorry about that.
The barrier has become increasingly familiar to German web users since 2009 when an agreement between video sharing website YouTube and German music rights management group GEMA expired, igniting an unprecedented legal copyright standoff. But just how many videos on the world's biggest video sharing website are blacked-out in Germany, Kreil wondered?
He and his data-journalist colleagues at Berlin-based OpenDataCity (ODC) decided to investigate.
"YouTube doesn't provide this information explicitly, so we had to collect it ourselves," Lorenz Matzat, co-founder of ODC, told SmartPlanet. Using a random sample of hundreds of thousands of YouTube queries, he said the Kreil-led team was able to determine the 1,000 most popular videos on the platform, which start at around 40 million views.
At the end of January, ODC revealed an interactive web application that painted a staggering picture: Germany appears to be experiencing a 61.5-percent blackout of YouTube's top videos. Even more telling was this rate compared to regions such as South Sudan at 15.3 percent and Vatican City, which appears to censor around 5.1 percent of YouTube's top videos.
But Germany's blackout is no censorship: YouTube, a subsidiary of web-search giant Google, has opted to block videos in question, rather than pay the per-view fee solicited by GEMA for its copyrighted material. The conflict recently degenerated into a lawsuit by GEMA alleging that YouTube's barrier message misleads the public into believing GEMA is directly responsible for the access denial.
"The way we see it, the blocks are a campaign by YouTube to turn the public against GEMA amidst negotiations," GEMA representative Ursula Goebel told Germany's Die Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). The paper described the music rights organization's self-image as that of the proverbial David against Goliath-Google.
Meanwhile, YouTube has accused GEMA of short-changing its members by not capitalizing on the revenue and publicity stream YouTube has to offer, citing last year's highest-grossing video with some $8 million in advertising revenue:
"'Gangnam Style' showed that YouTube can generate significant advertising revenue and function as a promotional platform for the artist," German YouTube representative Mounira Latrache told SZ.
But even more critically, ODC's findings and contextual visualizations have served as fuel for key ongoing discussions in Germany: from the subject of copyright in the digital age to "information monopolies", the country's opinion leaders agree that Germany is -- for better or worse -- a remarkably unique case, from regulatory precedents to global business strategy.
Blogger and digital rights activist Anne Roth told SmartPlanet she believes part of the German establishment is stuck in the digital dark ages.
"Many publishers here simply don't understand how the internet works, so they continue to try and control it," she said, adding that they "often fail to see the value in sharing information in exchange for exposure."
On the other hand, ODC's Matzat says YouTube's choice to block the videos says a lot about its parent company.
"It's interesting to see what Google does when publishers say they want money for the material Google republishes. It says there just won't be any Google News from that source, for instance," he told SmartPlanet.
"So in the face of regulation, Google is apparently willing to forgo revenue -- even more than it would have to pay in fees -- in order not to be regulated."
Matzat also noted a unique market development to emerge from the conflict:
"The situation has become really advantageous for YouTube's German competition. It shows that YouTube isn't as important in Germany as in other countries, also from the perspective of its societal role. When every second link doesn't work, you change the platform, you go somewhere else."
ODC's interactive application recently obtained YouTube competitor MyVideo as a sponsor, though app development began prior to the announcement, and ODC says its editorial and advertising sales operations remain independent of one another. In any case, Matzat says there is much left to understand about the collected data.
"I think one of the most interesting things to come out of this project is how the top thousand videos are dominated by music, and you realize the political or social topics aren't really there," he said.
"It shows that YouTube is more of an entertainment channel… MTV 2.0. The feeling I get is that it's still not politically relevant. Then again, you have to be careful in presuming that your own media choices also drive the world: it's easy to get stuck in a bubble."
APP/PHOTO: OpenDataCity / YouTube