.................with apologies to Alistair Cook

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A trap set by Google?

The story of Totlol - Totlol - Video for Kids: "The story of Totlol
 
Prelude - a trap set up by Google

Every start-up has a story. This is the story of Totlol. Because I did everything myself, it is also the story of almost two years of my life. It's the story of a flourishing service into which I put tons of work. It's the story of site for which I had high hopes. It's the story of how things unfolded when it has fallen into a trap set up by Google.

What?

A trap? Set up by Google?

Yep. It works in the following manner:

Google releases a public API. They watch what third-party developers do with the API and modify the Terms of Service (ToS) for that API in a way that prevents breakthrough potential. Google may then move to offer a similar service based on their platform rather than the API.

Unbelievable?

I thought so too. Until I experienced it first hand.

Read on.

Act one - I build a website

My son, now four, has been a YouTube user since the time he was about 10 months old. Not his fault. He'd crawl into the office, I'd point the browser to show him something interesting. I had 'online video' and 'kids' in my head for a while and in early 2008 I decided I'll make my ideas a project.

The very first prototype of Totlol had an upload button and no YouTube integration. When it was done I contacted a content creator with a good YouTube presence and showed it to them. The response: 'Great idea for a site' but 'we have limited resources when it comes to distributing ... so our participation isn't a sure thing.' They never uploaded. I got replies along the same lines from others I contacted.

That was not good.

Then I thought about YouTube a little more. When uploading to YouTube, content creators give an implicit right to distribute. They don't want to be bothered again. I figured that if I empower a community to sort what has already been uploaded it will have a chance of succeeding. The YouTube APIs provided the right tools.

I launched the first version of Totlol publicly on May 11, 2008. It introduced the concepts of community participation and video pre-screening and was very well received. With that feedback at hand I made a bold decision. I decided to commit to the project and make it a start-up. Making an even gutsier move I submitted an application for the TechCrunch 50 start-up competition. Then I went to work on building what I just promised to deliver in three months.

On June 16, 2008 I received, via Totlol's contact form, a message from Stephanie Liu, currently a Developer Technical Programs Manager at Google and back then part of the YouTube API team.

It said:

'I saw some blogs / articles about the site, and think it's a great example of how to use the APIs :) I'd like to feature the site on code.google.com'

We had a short discussion and finished exchanging information and files on the 18th. Then there was silence and what seemed like a couple of weeks have passed. Finally an e-mail arrived:

'Sorry for the delay -- Totlol is currently on the featured project widget on code.google.com and code.google.com/apis/youtube'

Delay? That happens. I said 'Really, really, really thanks' and went back to work building stuff.

Act Two - They change the terms

The interest in Totlol was not coincidental. It was one of the first to use tools provided as part of a major YouTube API upgrade done a few months prior. That upgrade also introduced a whole new set of ToS dated March 10, 2008. It is a boring document but I actually read it very carefully several times before starting to work on YouTube integration.

Though newly published less than four months prior, Google found it necessary to make a small update to the YouTube API ToS on July 7th.

A new restriction on commercial use was introduced:

'the sale of advertising, sponsorships, or promotions on any page of the API Client containing YouTube audiovisual content, unless other content not obtained from YouTube appears on the same page and is of sufficient value to be the basis for such sales.'

The tangled wording is specifically restrictive for sites where the main use case is watching videos. Such sites are navigated mainly by jumping from one video to the other. The occurrences of a page views in which there is no audiovisual content are random and far-between. Getting sponsorship under these terms would be ridiculous. Advertising revenue would be practically non-existent.

There was no announcement of the ToS change. It wasn't in the blog and though I've later looked in the Developer Forum archive, I could not find one there either.

Within two months of launching publicly, the legal walls that would later trap me have been erected. But no one told me.

By September I had a Beta and though I didn't make the cut for the TechCrunch 50, I moved on with enhancements. AgeOptimizer came in October. OAuth linked YouTube accounts came in January. By April I brought Totlol to the iPhone. It became an Apple featured Web App and I got another nod of approval when the site became a Webby Awards Official Honoree. The backend was finally stable. Usage was growing nicely. People really liked it.

Then, as I was ready to make a business move, I looked at the ToS again. They changed. I read them carefully and, oops, something was wrong. There was a new commercial use restriction.

Boom. I've hit the brick wall.

Act Three - Trapped

What can one do? I didn't know when the ToS changed nor the context in which it was done, but, I'm an optimist.

The commercial use restrictions set in the ToS do say that there may be exceptions if one can 'obtain YouTube's prior written approval'. With that in mind I went to Google I/O, the annual developer conference.

At the conference I met Kuan Yong, Sr. Product Manager at Google and as far as I knew, the person responsible for the API. He was about to give a presentation titled Best Practices for Writing Great, Monetizable YouTube Apps. I said 'hi' and sat down.

I thought Totlol was great, others thought Totlol was great and I knew the API team at YouTube thought it was great. I was hoping to see how it would be presented. It wasn't. It felt awkward. Bizarre. At least Kuan was kind enough to acknowledge Totlol and me verbally.

After the presentation was done I caught up with Kuan, we had a chance to chitchat and I popped the question. Sort of.

I didn't ask Kuan to allow me something specific. He couldn't do it anyway without consulting others. Instead I asked for help in finding a brand sponsor and demonstrated how Totlol will look with sponsorship in place.

After a few days and some e-mail exchange I got a clear message:

'I recommend that you do what all other websites do'.

I was trapped.

I basically had three options: I could leave things as are and have no business, I could intentionally violate the ToS and be at Google's grace or I could modify the site to circumvent the way the ToS were worded, sacrifice the user experience and hope to satisfy a sponsor. I didn't like my odds, my business plan was in ruins and generally speaking there is no point shouting at the rain.

At 2 AM, the morning of June 5 I posted a message on the site saying that it will close by the end of the month.

This is where things should have ended. But they didn't.

Act Four - You want to do what?

Friday, June 5 was e-mail day. TechCrunch did a story and the messages started flowing in. Among them was one from Hunter Walk, Director of Product Management at Google.

It was titled:

'From YouTube: brainstorming about what features you'd need on-site to recreate TotLol experience'

He said:

'I lead the product management team for the consumer experience at YouTube.com'

He stated:

'My goal is that eventually i'd like to support lots of successful vertical experiences such as yours w/in the site in addition to outside the site.'

He asked for my 'expertise' and he followed with some fairly specific questions.

I felt uneasy.

There was e-mail exchanged and then a meeting at a Starbucks in San Bruno. Hunter arrived at that meeting with a block of paper and pen. He was ready to take notes and he again asked very specific questions, some I dodged, some I answered. As a follow up to that meeting I clarified that I was at a 'stop loss' situation, pointed that they control the terms and hence control Totlol's future and offered my time under other arrangements if they are interested.

Within two days I had a reply. The mail contained some sentiments, vague hopes for the future and a lot of words. It also included this:

'Ultimately our role in the developer community is to provide technical guidance, promotional support and to ensure developers have a voice in the direction of our API roadmap. As a platform, we need to stay agnostic from the business-side of that equation.'

I wasn't sure what 'agnostic' meant so I checked. At the time, Hunter knew when and why the ToS were changed. I didn't know, he didn't tell me, and agnostic he wasn't.

Game over. Right? Nope.

Act Five - Not to die.

In the flood of e-mail that followed the closing announcement was something interesting. One user offered to make a donation, another said she'd like to pay a monthly fee, then another and another. A content creator wrote and said he was 'proud' to be on the site. People didn't just like Totlol. They loved it.

It was time not to die.

Anyone familiar with online marketing knows that converting site visitors into paying members is a monumental task. The numbers are brutal and this was to be the easy part. Google has published an adjacent document to the ToS, called Using the YouTube APIs to Build Monetizable Applications. If the ToS are walls, this document is like the barbed wire and warning signs that prevent you from even thinking of getting close to the wall.

The odds were still against me, but I was a year in the red and something is better than nothing. I decided I'd give it a try.

For the first time in my life I built something according to lawyers' guidelines not users' wishes. This is how the current set-up of Totlol came to be. This is why users are nagged. This is where the wording at the about page came from. I notified Hunter requesting that if Google is to object they'll do it sooner rather than later. There was no reply so I enabled fee requests.

Totlol users are serious people and Totlol is a serious full-featured web application. Now, supported solely by members it is still trapped, still can't breakthrough, but it is alive. It is a shining example for the true potential of YouTube and is one of, if not the, best YouTube powered website out there.

So they lived happily ever after. Yah, right.

Act Six - WTF?

Over the past couple of months I have checked YouTube API ToS at archive.org a few times but all they had was the March 10, 2008 version of the API ToS. This version obviously differs from the current version dated April 8, 2009 but it offers no indication as to how and when things changed.

Then in November archive.org updated.

I clicked the stored versions one by one and there it was, a ToS update dated July 7, 2008 . I compared it to the original and...

WTF?

On July 7?

That was way earlier than I thought! There was no major YouTube change at the time! That was at the time when I was working on the beta! That was like when...

I looked up an old e-mail thread. There it was, the old e-mail from Stephanie Liu. The one with the apology for the delay.

It said:

'Sent: Monday, July 07, 2008 4:50 PM'

I actually felt my stomach turn.

Curtain - The six inches in front of your face

I contacted Hunter. I contacted Kuan. I contacted Stephanie. I even sent an e-mail to legal@google.com

Stephanie 'can't remember exactly' what the reason for the delay was. Her 'memory is hazy'. These are direct quotes in case you wondered. Kuan won't answer a simple question regarding his own I/O presentation. I guess he doesn't want to lie. If replying, Hunter emits random legal verbiage. The person who actually made the decisions is courageously hiding behind them.

So, let's sum things up. This is what happened:

When the YouTube API team saw Totlol they liked it. At about the same time someone else at Google saw it, realized the potential it, and/or similar implementations may have, and initiated a ToS modification. An instruction was given to delay public acknowledgement of Totlol until the modified ToS where published. Later an instruction was given to avoid public acknowledgement at all.

Why?

I think the simplest explanation may be the correct one. As Hunter stated very clearly - they have a goal. They also have a method that works. With some cover-up, silence and amnesia they almost got away with it.

What should I do about what has happened?

I really don't know, but maybe you do. Here is the contact form. Use it as you like.

As for the future, following instructions from my wife, I'm looking for a job. Not a project or a start-up idea. A job, preferably with a stable, innovative and honest internet related company in the San Francisco Bay area where we currently live. I have a diverse skill set and I pay great attention to details. You may use the contact form for that too if relevant.

Thanks for making it this far.

I did my best.

That's what living is.

Ron.

"



(Via .)