Crime 101: YouTube's How-To Guide to Delinquency

A simple search Wednesday of "How To" videos on YouTube not only turned up helpful tips for household repairs, but also offered step-by-step instructions for breaking into that house, stealing the car, driving off without paying for gas, and even scamming a Big Mac.

The popular Web site — owned by Google — and known for offering fun viral videos of everything from cats napping to extreme viewer idiocy now is catching flack for allowing instructional videos that show in detail how to pull off a crime.

When it launched its Web site in December 2005, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen said the site's technology ensured "that watching and sharing videos is fast and fun."

Video: YouTube or YouSteal?

But found videos that law enforcement officials might find unsavory, including how-to's on computer, bicycle and car theft — and, a special video on stealing coffee from the grocery store.

Often filed under entertainment or comedy, the videos seem to be a range of staged and real.

"YouTube does not allow videos showing dangerous or illegal acts, and this is clearly stated in the community guidelines on the site," Jenny Nielsen, marketing manager, said in a statement issued to "Please note that our community controls the content on the site and they’re the ones (not us) who flag content they deem inappropriate."

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YouTube's terms of use require that submitters will not "submit material that is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, libelous, threatening, pornographic, harassing, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, or encourages conduct that would be considered a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability, violate any law, or is otherwise inappropriate."

"Once a video is flagged, YouTube reviews the material promptly and reserves the right to remove videos from the system if they violate our terms of use," Nielsen said.

Much of the information posted in these how-to videos is available elsewhere, and it doesn't raise the eyebrows of law enforcement unless someone commits a crime.

"There's a lot of material you can find on the Internet that people would say would be objectionable or disturbing, but until there's actually a federal crime being committed, there's not really much we can do," said Cathy Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C. "Putting that out there is not breaking a crime. If someone acted on that information and picked a lock or hotwired a car, and it was a federal offense, then we would become involved."

And there's nothing criminal about posting how-to videos, experts say.

"We have such a broad commitment to the First Amendment and to free expression. I mean we even allow Web sites that talk about how to make an atomic bomb and have all kinds of information about explosives," said James B. Jacobs, a law professor at New York University. "You know, democracy is a dangerous business and free speech is a dangerous business. I doubt that there is anyway you could impose criminal penalties on stuff like that."

Jennifer Granick, the executive director of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, says there might even be some social benefits to posting these videos.

"It might be useful to know that things aren't working the way we think they should work, or things aren't as secure as we think they are, so that something can be done about it," Granick said.

In September 2004, a video sent to Bike Forum exposed a major security flaw in the Kryptonite U-Lock. A reader showed that the lock could be jimmied open using just a Bic pen. Kryptonite was able to upgrade its lock system, though it had to scramble to give customers upgrades to their locks.

Sometimes posted videos can help law enforcement catch the criminals. In October, North Wales police arrested a teen who allegedly stole the glasses off the face of a passerby, the Guardian reports. The "wild specs robbery" video posted on YouTube led to the suspect's arrest.

YouTube is not the only venue where fallacies are exposed. Discovery Channel's "It Takes a Thief" is hosted by two former thieves who help everyday people how to guard against theft by showing them where they are most vulnerable.

"What we've tried to do, instead of judging the message and making some kind of discrimination about 'well, we think this helps society,' or 'we think this doesn't help society,' we kind of say 'well, giving instructions is sort of free speech,'" Granick said. "And it's only if you're giving those instructions for the purpose of helping somebody do a crime that we punish you."