Advocacy’s long and winding road

As citizens continue to play a critical role in supplying news and human rights footage from around the world, YouTube is committed to creating even better tools to help them. According to the international human rights organization WITNESS’ Cameras Everywhere report, “No video-sharing site or hardware manufacturer currently offers users the option to blur faces or protect identity.”

YouTube is excited to be among the first.

Today we’re launching face blurring – a new tool that allows you to obscure faces within videos with the click of a button.

(YouTube Global Blog, 18 July 2012)

Advocacy in any arena generally takes a long long time. In this context we’re talking about pressuring key Silicon Valley companies that have gone in under a decade from being simple technology providers to being an integral part of everyday human activity across much of the planet.

That one line quoted above was something we’d been talking to YouTube/Google about for 4 years (and that’s more than half of YouTube’s own existence). Those who can make seemingly simple changes like this happen are busy people operating within multiple sets of interlocking wheels of law and policy, and myriad competing internal demands. The conversations with these people started before I got to WITNESS, and they continued after I left in mid-2010 (and continue to this day) – and as the Cameras Everywhere report shows, there’s still plenty to discuss in the future.

Here are my personal recollections and reflections on how the conversations with YouTube that I was involved in developed – with the accent strongly on “personal”. Since I left WITNESS 2 years ago, I’m not party to the latest conversations between YouTube and WITNESS – but I do know where the seeds came from and how they took root. Over at the WITNESS blog Sam Gregory explains the human rights dimension of this move by YouTube.

I am sharing this therefore partial account in the hope that reading a little about our experience will give succour to other activists and researchers running into what seem like brick walls right now. Keep talking, keep trusting, and keep pushing… and embrace serendipity.

[Thurs 19 July - I've slightly clarified some of the written-at-1.30am-language...]
[Sun 22 July - further clarification, including of when I left WITNESS.]

WITNESS had talked to people at YouTube before I joined in 2007, but that was to see if they’d donate a “white-label” version of the platform to use for what became the Hub (as it happens, they said no, as this wasn’t their model). We went on to build the Hub in Drupal, but just as we were about to launch, someone at YouTube went and did this to Wael Abbas – and our analysis of how YouTube could have done better helped open the door to substantive discussion. I went to YouTube’s San Bruno home to see Sara Pollack, Film Manager, and Steve Grove, News and Politics Editor, in early 2008, just to test the water on their interest in human rights and left encouraged.

A few months later, Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, Chris Michael and I were invited to Mountain View, ostensibly for me to give a Google Talk (which went mysteriously unrecorded) about how YouTube could become a better partner for human rights, but also affording us the chance to have some really illuminating private conversations with key YouTube and Google staff. This was around the time of this NYT piece on “Google’s Gatekeepers”. We began to build solid and regular channels of communication, with, among others, Steve Grove and Olivia Ma, providing us with a way to test ideas out (including face-blurring), build trust, and understand better how companies like Google work. And, as is the WITNESS way, we were also encouraged to challenge and redefine our own ideas and assumptions – were we thinking and advocating in a way that our advocacy targets could actually use? Were our suggestions practically implementable? Were we barking up the wrong tree?

Google London invited me to give another talk a year later – but again, and sadly for historians of rhetoric, no record of this exists, as we were interrupted by a fire alarm. During the evacuation, however, I had a chance conversation with a YouTube worker about the technical feasibility of blurring. He assured me it was possible (as in StreetView), but that the case needed to be made on a policy level. This, coming from someone at a big company, allied to eye-opening conversations with people like Colin Maclay and Caroline Nolan at Berkman, Rebecca Mackinnon, and Robert Guerra, then of Freedom House, helped crystallise for me that someone needed to push the companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook on visual media at the policy level. It was increasingly clear to a growing number of civil society and tech advocates that such was the scale of use of these companies’ products by activists that any improvements in privacy and protection practices would have a disproportionately large benefit for human rights – but no one at that stage was thinking about the impact of visual social media (YouTube, Flickr, Facebook Photos, UStream, etc) on human rights.

Things began to pick up pace, both with the ever-increasing use of YouTube as a platform for human rights reporting, and with WITNESS’ own strategy, which I and my close friend and colleague Sam Gregory argued hard should include policy advocacy as a key strand – a step WITNESS took. Around this time, I left NYC to return to the UK, continuing to work with Sam and Yvette as a freelancer, collaborating first on some blog posts with Steve Grove, and then developing what became Cameras Everywhere. It took the team of researchers and editors many months of hard work, intensive research and interviewing, and re-writing (“OK, it’s finished…” “Er, Wikileaks?” [sound of frantic typing] “OK, it’s done…” “I hate to tell you, but Tunisia’s kicked off…” etc) – but the report came out last September. While it’s perhaps a little unorthodox and eclectic for academic tastes – we deliberately eschewed footnotes, we anonymised responses to respect the candour of people’s insights, and we deliberately tried to pull seemingly disparate sectors just a few inches closer together – it seemed to reach and resonate with a wide variety of people, and the interdisciplinary approach we took broadened the space for public debate on visual media and human rights.

Since then, WITNESS has gone from strength to strength – for example, by launching a curated Human Rights Channel in partnership with YouTube and Storyful – another thing we’d been pressing YouTube to do for many years. [I forgot to mention the pioneering work done by WITNESS and the Guardian Project on the ObscuraCam and InformaCam Android apps.] Sam Gregory in particular has kept the ratchet going on this work, speaking widely and thinking deeply not just about what is right for the human rights community, but what is right for all social media users. I’m absolutely delighted he’s getting recognition for his unstinting work over more than a decade.

It’s gratifying to see the target of your policy advocacy acknowledge the role your work played in bringing about a key change – and YouTube’s mention of Cameras Everywhere is especially so. Not just because it proves that at least one person must have read the report and paid attention to what it said… but also because it shows that an organisation steeped in activism and action can take a step back from its own campaigns, examine the wider landscape, and bring its considerable experience to bear on matters that affect the whole human rights movement. This kind of reflection and analysis is going to become more and more important in a networked, real-time, data-rich world. The pay-off isn’t immediate, but at its best, it’s long-term and structural, and positively affects the rules of the whole game, not just an individual match. And here, though this individual change is perhaps quite small in the grand scheme of things, it’s hugely symbolic, as YouTube represents ca. 75% of the online video market.

Prominent organisations like WITNESS have a wider responsibility, beyond their own constituents and stakeholders, to the wider movement they form part of. WITNESS and organisations like it have cultural and social power, they have friends in high places, and they have the networks and knowhow to give an issue oxygen. I’m proud to have been part of an organisation that has decided to use its considerable cultural assets to frame and push the debate in this way. Long may it continue, and I congratulate my good friends and former colleagues on a 20th anniversary year that is shaping up to be one of the most pivotal years in the organisation’s history.

And a special thank you to whoever set off that fire alarm during my talk at Google London – who knows how things might have turned out, had they not had a sneaky cigarette in the toilets…?

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