The wonderful world of video hosting

One of the issues I regularly face as an IT Manager is where third party companies we purchase resources from host their videos. Like most schools, we make use of a wide variety of third party services to provide resources for teaching and learning. In years gone by, these would have arrived on CDs and DVDs, or if you were really fancy, you had a dedicated device you shipped out to schools to host the videos (such as the CachePilot devices which the Espresso service used to use). These days though? Its all hosted online.

For those suppliers, this raises a big question for them – do they host it on their own servers? Potentially costing them rather large sums of money in hardware, datacentre and maintenance costs. Or cloud host it on something like AWS or Azure? Potentially costing more money in storage and bandwidth costs. Or do they host it on a dedicated video hosting service such as YouTube or Vimeo, which has vastly reduced costs but raises some issues which I will below. The answer for many, it turns out, is the latter option.

The problem

Services such as Vimeo and Youtube seem too good to be true to most small companies. They can host hours of video at minimal cost, or even free! Seems like a simple choice at first doesn’t it?

The problem is, it brings up a major complication in schools – filtering. By law, UK schools must have in place “appropriate levels of filtering”. So, as you can probably guess, this means things like pornography, extremism, violence, gambling, drug taking and the like are all blocked from consumption by children. You can probably see where this is going now.

Vimeo lacks content controls

If you already work in education IT, you will likely be aware that YouTube provides numerous tools for ensuring the inappropriate videos are filtered out in schools – tools such as Restricted Mode, and SafeSearch. You can enforce these on a network and device level, ensuring they cannot be bypassed. Many filtering providers also provide additional tools on top, such as the ability to hide comments, thumbnails and the sidebar. Excellent for schools.

Vimeo on the other hand? It has zero such controls beyond an unenforceable, user changeable “maturity filter”. Theoretically, this shouldn’t matter, as Vimeo doesn’t allow pornographic content. However, their definition of pornographic content focuses on explicit nudity and sexual content. It still allows other nudity and related content. For example, searching Vimeo for “nude” with the maturity turned off returns the below (blurred for obvious reasons).

A grid of 6 images, blurring nudity.
The first 6 results for a search on Vimeo for “nude”

Compare that to what a user would see if they search for the same term on Youtube with Restricted Mode enabled.

4 Youtube results, showing a list of videos with "nude" in the title, but none of them actually containing nudity.
Youtube’s Restricted Mode results for the search term “nude”

The obvious choice?

The obvious solution for schools is to block Vimeo entirely. No Vimeo, no nudity, no problem. Great. Schools themselves won’t use Vimeo to host videos, so it should be fine shouldn’t it?

Well, no, we have to circle back to the third party suppliers and their video hosting choice. Many of these companies have minimal knowledge or experience when it comes to filtering in an education setting. There’s plenty that are run by ex-teachers, but those teachers will only ever have experienced filtering on the user end – being blocked from viewing something. It will never have really been a concern of theirs.

So, many companies are choosing to use Vimeo. Apparently, they have a superb content management interface for the management of videos – an interface that far exceeds the tools made available by Youtube. Vimeo is also incredibly cheap. £70pm for 7TB of storage (enough to store about 270 hours of HD content), and unlimited viewers. From a simple finance POV, it makes so much sense.

Except it makes life incredibly difficult to their customers.

Solutions? Or workarounds?

Those companies now have a few options for dealing with their customers.

Option 1 – Claim that other schools use their content without issue, and you should simply unblock Vimeo.

This option, quite frankly, is insulting. Yes, some schools are failing in their legal duty to properly filter their internet appropriately. Some schools may have decided to not worry about nudity. That’s their choice, and it is a choice they might one day have to justify at an Ofsted inspection when a parent complains. It is not a valid option to offer a school.

Option 2 – Advise your customer to block the website, but unblock the cdn and related sites, so as to allow embedded videos to be played, but leave the main site (and its search engine) blocked.

A slightly better option, but not great. Embedded videos being unblocked means those inappropriate videos are still accessible – all someone needs do is create a website with those videos embedded in them. All school IT staff know the fun of playing whack-a-mole with free sites hosting things that are ordinarily blocked. Google Sites, blogs, etc… Most of the time these are game sites, but nudity comes up sometimes too. So, this option isn’t really any good either – it just creates more work for the customer.

Option 3 – Provide your customer with a list of all the individual Vimeo video URLs to add to their filter allow list.

The most usable option for many schools, though it can be labourious depending on the filtering solution used and the number of videos. This allows the school to keep Vimeo blocked, and the general tool for embedding videos – so only the specific videos the supplier is hosting can be accessed.

The main issues with this are management time – as the videos get changed/updated, they need adding to the filter allow list. Suppliers also then need to maintain a list which can be sent to customers. Suppliers will also have worries about their intellectual property being available after any contract runs out too – though a wily school would be able to (rather labouriously) compile their own list anyway, as the video URLs are available in any embedded site’s HTML code.

So what’s the real solution?

The real solution to this problem is simple – stop using Vimeo to host education content until Vimeo introduce proper content controls that schools can implement.

I know this will be a hardship to many companies, but as it stands, my advice to all schools is simple – ask any potential supplier which video hosting platform they use for their videos. If they answer Vimeo? Choose a different supplier.

It may be a blunt suggestion, but schools’ legal obligations regarding appropriate filtering are more important than many other considerations – failing in your safeguarding obligations is a quick way to enter into special measures.

For any companies reading this, I would suggest that YouTube is a better choice, even if their management tools aren’t as good. Or, if you don’t like the idea of YouTube? Take a look at hosting it on a cloud service. Azure has a variety of media services. Sure, it’ll cost you a bit more, but it’ll also make your customers much happier.

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