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28 Nov 2023

Paresh Dave, Wired

Google faces allegations of excluding Palestinians from its online economy

"Palestinians Are Locked Out of Google’s Online Economy", 28 November 2023

Palestinian graphic designer Bilal Tamimi’s YouTube videos from the village of Nabi Saleh in the West Bank have received 6 million views during the past 13 years. His uploads document joyous festivals and peaceful protests—but also violent skirmishes between Nabi Saleh’s 600 residents and occupying Israeli soldiers.

The platform has helped Tamimi broadcast to his more than 20,000 subscribers, but he’s locked out of YouTube’s revenue sharing program... When Tamimi tries to sign up, YouTube’s app says, “The YouTube Partner Program is not available in your current location Palestine.”

The internet has given some Palestinians a global audience, but many benefits of online life that billions around the world can take for granted simply don’t work for people in Gaza and the West Bank.

Human rights organizations say the disparity in access to online sources of income weakens the Palestinian economy. "Many Palestinians who work online struggle to be paid," says Marwa Fatafta, a policy and advocacy manager at the rights organization Access Now. YouTube’s policy “fits a larger pattern of tech companies’ discriminatory approach to Palestinians.”

Google spokespeople, who asked not to be named for safety concerns, say in a statement that the company is committed to creating economic opportunities for Palestinians through services and training. The YouTube Partner Program won’t be available in the Palestinian territories until Google launches a local version of YouTube, which involves customizing features and options to the language and culture.

...WIRED reviewed popular Palestinian YouTube channels, news websites, and apps associated with the region. ...The investigation revealed how a series of Palestinian projects and companies hit financial dead ends when attempting to monetize online in ways easy for people in countries such as the US and Israel.

The Google sources not authorized to speak to media allege those challenges reflect years of internal politics and neglect of Palestinian users at the company.

US congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin says Israel’s current attack on Gaza underscores how wrong that pattern of online exclusion is. ... It is crucial, he argues, that “Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have equal opportunities for economic participation.” In May, Pocan led several Democratic US lawmakers in urging PayPal to allow Palestinian accounts. PayPal, which declined to comment, hasn’t changed its policies.

Geographic Gaps

YouTube’s revenue program for creators, known as YPP, launched in 2007 and pioneered the concept of a major social media platform turning amateur stardom into a well-paying job.

Despite YouTube’s dominant position, WIRED’s review found that YPP doesn’t let in creators from over a quarter of the world's 100 most populous countries, most of them in Africa. It welcomes people from many countries with smaller populations than the Palestinian territories, where, combined, an estimated 5 million people reside. Creators from Iraq and Yemen, also Arabic-speaking places troubled by conflict, are listed as supported.

Chen, who helped develop YPP while working at YouTube, believes that the platform’s leaders may want to avoid funding creators whose content puts them at risk from local authorities, and also worry that language barriers or limited staffing could make it difficult to provide suitable customer service.

But it’s not impossible for platforms to work with creators in Palestine. California-based fundraising service Patreon gets money to Palestinian users through the payments provider Payoneer, and smaller money-moving tools such as Saudi Arabia’s PayTabs say they support transactions with Palestinian accounts.

Other parts of Google’s vast empire claim to serve Palestinians businesses, but people reached by WIRED say the reality is very different.

Google documentation says the Google Play app store allows developers from 163 markets, including one listed as “Palestine,” to sell apps and in-app purchases and that Google’s AdSense advertising system supports 232 countries or territories, including “Palestinian Territory.”

Odeh Quraan, who runs a Ramallah-based software development agency called iPhase with overseas customers, says the sign-up process for AdSense requires entering a PIN mailed by Google. But Israel controls the flow of mail to the West Bank, and many items never arrive, he says.

Elsewhere in Ramallah, software development company Mongid stopped offering in-app purchases from an ecommerce app on Google Play and abandoned a YouTube channel with tutorials on using online learning tools because it was too difficult to receive revenue via Google, says CEO Mongid Abu-Baker.

This month, he and two other app developers interviewed by WIRED have been stymied by a new Google Play requirement that all developers get verified by global professional services firm Dun & Bradstreet. Neither the Palestinian territories nor their country code for phone numbers are listed as options on sign-up webpages, and Palestinian developers must seek customer service from Dun & Bradstreet through offices in Israel rather than an Arab country.

Abu-Baker calls the lack of recognition an affront on his identity. “Palestinian companies hold an importance no less significant than any other worldwide,” he says.

Efrat Segev, chief of data and product for Dun & Bradstreet in Israel, says hundreds of Palestinian businesses have finished verification over the past two years and that complaints are few but that it is trying to remedy the concerns. Google declined to comment.

The difficulties faced by Abu-Baker and others in Palestine clash with messaging from Google’s leaders in California about its work in the Middle East.

Asked on stage at a conference this month about Google’s role in contested areas like Gaza, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said his company can be a critical technology partner.

Some Israeli creators, like those in Palestine, feel Google isn’t living up to that.

YouTube’s screening tools can deem videos showing violence or capitalizing on war as inappropriate for advertisers, although partner program participants also get some revenue from paid subscribers to YouTube who don’t see ads. That business, and revenue stream for creators, is growing.

Palestinians lack the opportunity to receive checks from YouTube at all. The Israeli creator Gil-Shuster says the disparity was news to him and that the fix seems clear. “Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, obviously,” he says, “should have equal right to benefit from monetization as anyone else.”