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A Father Fights To Get Footage Of His Daughter's Death Removed


Early morning, 2015 - a gunman walked up and shot Alison Parker, a young journalist, and her cameraman as they were doing a live TV interview. Nearly five years have passed since those murders, but videos from the broadcast and from the gunman's GoPro camera are still being shared and often manipulated and posted by conspiracy theorists. Despite YouTube's community guidelines about graphic violence, videos keep appearing on the site.

Alison's father, Andy Parker, has been fighting for years to get YouTube and its parent company, Google, to stop airing those videos. He's now filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. We should note here that Google is one of NPR's financial supporters.

Andy Parker joins us now from his home in Collinsville, Va. Thank you so much for being with us.

ANDY PARKER: Thank you, Lulu. I'm glad to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about how you first discovered these videos and what kind of impact that had on you.

PARKER: Well, I - you know, I don't recall the exact time, but it was very shortly after Alison's murder. And I had a YouTube channel myself, like a lot of people do. And you know, I'd archive Alison's dance recitals. I would create videos of, you know, our kayaking adventures and just stuff like that. And I uploaded all that stuff. Nobody paid any attention to it until Alison was killed. And then suddenly, they swarmed it. I mean, people were posting the most vile comments you could imagine on her dance recital. You know, people - I remember there were comments like, I watched her die, and I really enjoyed it - I mean, sick, evil stuff like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you've been waging this long fight to get these videos taken down. Can you sort of share what that fight has looked like? What did you have to do?

PARKER: Yeah. Initially - it's not like you can call up Google customer service and say, hey, you know, got a problem here. They're the most opaque company in the world. But I got some young man overseas, and he - he was actually very helpful. And he said, we have a thing called the moment of death certificate. And you apply that to videos, and then they'll be removed. And I thought, well, that's great - well, until I found out that you couldn't just use it as a blanket tool. They were asking me essentially to go in and flag every single video to - you know, to have it removed.

You know, imagine being told that if you want videos of your child's murder removed from the Internet, you got to watch and describe every single one of them. You know, and you're talking to a machine. At the time, I thought, well, you know, somebody is going to recognize this. No, they don't. It's all an algorithm. It's all a robot that responds back. And so nothing was getting done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This has obviously been horrific to live with. And you know, I can't even imagine how hard this has been. We should say that YouTube has said that it has taken down thousands of Alison's videos and, quote, "rigorously enforce these policies using a combination of machine learning and human review." Also, there is no law against posting disturbing images, is there?

PARKER: Right. There is not. And Google's response is - it's the same response that we've been hearing for years. All they do is regurgitate their terms of service, which they violate, and their policies. They don't tell you - and they lie about the - you know, the fact that, you know, they have human eyeballs on it. They really don't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you filed an FTC complaint, and you want to sort of revoke or amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech companies for being responsible for what's on their sites. So for example, at NPR, we can't say bad words on air. We could certainly not play a murder on air. But tech companies who say that they're simply platforms can do that. What are you hoping to achieve here?

PARKER: Yeah, you're right. I mean, if Google had to abide by the same editorial oversight that you or Fox News or any legitimate news organization - you know, we wouldn't be having this conversation. So what I'm trying to accomplish here - and I'm doing this not just for me, but I'm doing it for, you know, the Sandy Hook families, the Parkland families, anybody that's been victimized like I have - we think that this action is the first step.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just have a last question. I mean, YouTube has said it makes exceptions for graphic material that has educational, news, scientific or artistic value. And people who oppose any restrictions on the Internet say that it's a short step to sort of censorship because one person's conspiracy theory might be another person's freedom of speech. I understand that in the case of the death of your daughter - the murder of your daughter - that may not be the case. But the wider issue - do you see that there might be problems with trying to infringe on freedom of speech online?

PARKER: I understand that argument, but as I told Senator Cruz when I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, look; we can all agree that we can protect the First Amendment, but there are limits. Recording and publishing murder online should not be one of them. There are limits to freedom of speech. Just like you can't yell fire in a theater, this is one of those exceptions. And I think anybody with any common sense would recognize that to continue to promote this - literally promote it and monetize murder - my daughter's murder - which is what Google does - it's reprehensible. It's pernicious. And it's got to stop. And that can be done without violating the First Amendment and freedom of speech.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andy Parker - he filed a complaint against YouTube with the FTC for failing to remove videos of the murder of his daughter Alison Parker.

Thank you very much, Mr. Parker.

PARKER: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We contacted Google and asked them to respond to Andy Parker's charge that the company was lying about having human beings review objectionable content. Google reiterated it has hired 10,000 people to do just that, which is the number of human reviewers Google announced it would hire in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSAJ THING'S "TM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.