YouTube has sparked outrage by defending an American man who subjected a journalist to repeated homophobic abuse in videos presented to millions of people, arguing that his “criticism” was debating rather than harassment.

Carlos Maza, a video journalist for the US news site Vox, went public last week with a complaint that the rightwing YouTube personality Steven Crowder was engaged in a long-term homophobic harassment campaign. In a compilation video Maza created of some of his mentions on Crowder’s show, the host attacks Maza as a “gay Mexican”, “lispy queer” and a “token Vox gay atheist sprite”.

“This has been going on for years, and I’ve tried to flag this shit on several occasions,” Maza said when he posted the video. “But YouTube is never going to actually enforce its policies. Because Crowder has 3 million YouTube subscribers, and enforcing their rules would get them accused of anti-conservative bias.”

On Wednesday, YouTube said in a public statement: “Our teams spent the last few days conducting an in-depth review of the videos flagged to us, and while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies.

“As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone – from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts – to express their opinions within the scope of our policies. Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site.”

The company did not explain why Crowder’s videos did not breach its harassment and cyberbullying policy, which explicitly bars “content that makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person”, or its hate speech policy, which bars creators from using “stereotypes that incite or promote hatred” based on attributes including ethnicity and sexual orientation.

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In a response given to the US news site Gizmodo, however, the company said it assessed whether “criticism is focused primarily on debating the opinions expressed or is solely malicious”, and that “the main point of these videos was not to harass or threaten, but rather respond to the opinion” posted by Maza.

Responding on Wednesday morning to YouTube’s decision, Maza said: “It’s going to get so much worse now. YouTube has publicly stated that racist and homophobic abuse doesn’t violate their anti-bullying policies. Crowder and his allies are going to be emboldened. I genuinely can’t imagine what LGBT employees at YouTube are doing right now.

“You can harass queer people as much as you want as long as it’s sandwiched between ‘debating’.”

YouTube’s response sparked a wave of criticism, with many noting that it came five days into Pride month. The main YouTube accounts on Twitter and YouTube are decked with rainbow flags to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community.

The company is still fighting its last crisis, after a New York Times report found that a paedophile ring that YouTube attempted to shut down in February was not only still operating but also being aided by the company’s own algorithm.

Videos of children in swimwear and underwear were being linked together by the video-sharing site’s recommendation algorithm, creating an automatic watchlist for paedophiles who trawl the site for “borderline” content that sexualises children without breaking child exploitation laws.

The company refused to remove recommendations from videos of children, arguing that doing so would hurt creators who rely on the recommendations to drive an audience to their videos. It did, however, introduce a rule requiring any minor livestreaming on the site to be accompanied by an adult.

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