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Human rights

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.]

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When I worked at WITNESS, we debated hotly how to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2008. We wanted to do something that felt contemporary, that felt open as a campaign, and that anyone – anyone – would have a response to and could run with. What we came up with, and what ended up catching the imagination of quite a few people, was a simple question:

What image opened your eyes to human rights?

To kick things off, I recorded a load of interviews with interesting activists, researchers, journalists and filmmakers when I was at the GFMD conference in Athens. I’ve just put  a playlist of these short, sometimes spine-tingling interviews onto YouTube. Here, as a taster, is Mary Robinson’s answer:

Head on over to the WITNESS blog, where you’ll find my new post on the ethics of facial recognition. I’ll post a slightly different version here over after the weekend, with a bit more detail in a couple of areas.

UPDATE (July 2012):

I’m not sure when time will permit, as I’ve been fairly consumed with completing my freelance work, and then moving to my new job at OSF, but I’ll endeavour to post all the resources I collected related to face recognition and human rights, as I hope they’ll be of use to other researchers and advocates in the field. In the meantime, quite a few of the resources I found I linked to from these two posts:

The Ethics of Face Recognition Technology (March 7th, 2012)

Tactical and Technological Defences for Face Recognition Technology (May 18th, 2012) – and this was also posted in a slightly amended form by PBS MediaShift (18th June 2012).

I forgot to cross-post this, which I wrote in December for the UNA-USA’s The Interdependent:

How we communicate and connect, how we see and document the world around us, how we express ourselves—all have been transformed over the past decade. Hundreds of millions of us on every continent experience this directly in our daily lives, from receiving a text message or making a mobile call to video-chatting with relatives or colleagues around the world.

As 2011 made so pointedly clear, communication technologies and networks of this kind are now so intrinsic to how many of us live, work, and interact that they are influencing how we think about, claim, and advocate for human rights. As the UN celebrated International Human Rights Day on December 10, for instance, it chose to highlight how “social media helped activists organize peaceful protest movements in cities across the globe—from Tunis to Madrid, from Cairo to New York—at times in the face of violent repression.”

This new reality is something that advocates and activists need to face head-on, urgently and collectively. Human rights concerns are at the heart of the technologies we use, the more domesticated, indispensable and close-to-home they become. But what does this mean in practical terms?

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Wikipedia goes dark in protest at SOPA and PIPA

A few years back, before all this internet/smartphone/ubiquitous stuff, I worked for a media development NGO, helping to strengthen public-interest media in the developing world, as a critical part of public debate and social change. One of the ways we used to articulate why it was important to support these independent, public and community media was “imagine a world without media”… Unthinkable.

Now, with the space for individual communication and agency expanding and affecting so many facets of our lives, a flotilla of sites “going dark” is a critical action that demonstrates where we might all end up if this kind of legislation, which seeks to protect archaic modes of production and value creation, at the behest of entrenched lobbies and interests, is not stopped in its tracks. SOPA and PIPA must be stopped.

[And, if laws such as these pass in the US, then these flawed and failed legal standards will then be exported to other nations, with drastic results for free speech, and the creation of value (cultural, economic, and network) worldwide.]