Google: Extorting Users For Core iOS Functionality Support

YouTube Red is here. I’ll admit, I haven’t kept up with it too much because, frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever used YouTube to listen to music. I have other means for that type of content delivery.

However, I recently heard a very disturbing report: Google is forcing third-party YouTube app developers to remove background audio (and, presumably, iOS 9 multitasking support?) from their apps. This bothers me greatly.

I don’t use YouTube to listen to music, but I do stream a TON of content from YouTube. I have dozens of subscriptions that envelope video Podcasts, Reviews, Discussions, Impressions, as well as ASMR videos. These are all types of content that I love to listen to, but none of them truly require my active attention to a video. Maybe sometimes I will choose to look at the video while listening but most of the time I would prefer to do other things while listening to this content. This is all independent of my podcast listening but, in practice, I treat all of this content as de facto podcasts. The only problem is that none of these content creators maintain a reliable Podcast RSS feed that I can pump into Overcast (my podcast player of choice — check it out!).

For years, my work around has been to have the video playing on my iPhone while I do other things on my iPad. This has always required the screen to remain on, since YouTube inexplicably removed background audio support from YouTube years ago. This process has always been far less than ideal. In fact, it negatively impacts my life because it significantly hampers my use of iPhone — both because I can’t do anything else on it while the video is playing, and because having the screen playing a video for hours zaps the battery like nobody’s business. I recently did some research to try to solve this problem and I have been using a third-party YouTube app called ProTube for a few months now. It’s not a great app, but it gets the job done and it fits my needs much more than Google’s official app. With news of this new third-party-app policy, it appears Google is expecting me to shell out a monthly fee to simply use it’s app how I use any other media app on iOS.

I want to be clear, here: I am not at all arguing that content creators don’t deserve to paid. Independent or not, a content creator or other Intellectual Property holder absolutely reserves the right to be compensated for their work. I’m not even arguing that a YouTube Music Subscription service should not be based around a monthly subscription. What I am saying, however, is that in practice this new policy has the affect of extorting the end-user for the right to have basic multitasking support.

I also want to be clear that in no way am I making the argument that Google owes me YouTube. They don’t. However, they haven’t been giving it to me for free all of this time, either. It’s Google, so on information and belief they are making some amount of money on whatever personal and web history data they can glean from my presence. I’ve also been watching, and sometimes clicking, the advertisements that they sell. And, boy, do they sell a lot of advertisements. One or more per video, if the creator wants it, which is wild when you think about it — on a 1 minute clip I could be subjected to anywhere from 15 seconds to 3 minutes of advertisement.

So, I’m not saying “I need YouTube and I need it for free!!!!” What I’m saying is that I am almost exclusively watching/listening to independent, non-music, content and am providing my own form of consideration for that service. Now, however, Google wants me to subscribe to YouTube Red in order to listen to this content in the background of my device. Simply put, there is no justification for not being able to listen to a YouTube-only podcast or ASMR video while also doing other tasks on my device. To the best of my knowledge, YouTube doesn’t and has no current plans to support iOS 9’s Picture-in-Picture or “side frame” multitasking. This is particularly egregious.

I’m not unsympthetic to Google’ plight here. Clearly, the way they were handling music/music videos was simply not profitable enough to justify continuing. I have no issue with the logic that if you want to listen to music on YouTube you need to subscribe to their new service plan. In practice, though, this new service is instituting blanket policies that unfairly hinder legitimate use and viewing of content in less-than-full-screen on iOS.

Still, it’s hard not to feel like Google is extorting me here, to some extent. “Oh yeah? Oh, you love iOS 9’s new multitasking and Picture-in-Picture features? Well, unless you pay me extra on top of what you’re already giving me (in the form of potentially-lucrative data mining) you will never get this core functionality of your device.

At the end of the day, my opinions and ideas don’t matter to Google. I surely believe they needed to change their status quo to make music streaming on YouTube economical. I don’t believe, however, that they are implementing YouTube Red in good faith; they are not only charging to stream music, but are also stashing away iOS 9 multitasking features behind a paywall. In practice, this implementation is negatively impacting low-margin (and independent) content creators — the type that don’t cost YouTube any money — and their audience. I hope they take a long and hard look at this policy but, at the the end of the day, I’m not optimistic.