In two weeks’ time, I’ll be moderating a workshop at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, on a topic dear to my heart:

Visual content and human rights – Content has changed our world, how do we manage its impact on society, governance, and privacy?

Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS
Thor Halvorssen, Founder, Oslo Freedom Forum
Victoria Grand, Director, Global Communications and Policy, YouTube
Hans Eriksson, CEO, Bambuser

I’ll be drawing in part on Cameras Everywhere, but what topics and issues would you like me to raise with these panelists? Let me know either via a comment below, or tweet me.

I’ve been a little quiet on the blogging front in recent months, and here’s why. Over the past year, I have been working with WITNESS as lead researcher and lead author on a new report with my former WITNESS colleagues Sam Gregory, Yvette Alberdingkthijm and Bryan Nunez. It’s part of a broader initiative called Cameras Everywhere that Sam and I co-conceived and -developed when I still worked at WITNESS.  It’s both exciting and gratifying to see the leadership role that WITNESS has taken with this initiative, not only in the field of video for change, but also more broadly in the sphere of technology and human rights – it’s a difficult job, trying to bridge the gaps between disparate sectors, but I hope this report can help demystify some of the key issues for all involved, and catalyse more open and constructive debate.

The report, which is based on over 40 interviews with experts in technology, media, human rights, policy and social media, just launched over on WITNESS’ website here (and here is a direct download link for the PDF file). We’re looking forward to your feedback and responses – let us know if you blog or write about it.

UPDATE: I’ve put it on Scribd too:

[Update: here’s the WITNESS report I talk about below, Cameras Everywhere]

I read, via The Browser, a GQ profile of AJ Daulerio, editor of Deadspin, sports outpost of Gawker.  Here’s an interesting section I didn’t expect to see, relating to the ethics of raw video:

Perhaps Daulerio’s darkest moment came last spring, when he posted a video of an obviously drunk college girl having sex in a bathroom stall at a sports bar in Bloomington, Indiana. At the time, he was thinking of it as part of a series on fans having sex in bathrooms. (In the fall of 2009, he’d posted a clip of a couple getting it on in a stall at the new Cowboys Stadium.) On May 11, a few days after the video went up, Daulerio received an e-mail from a woman imploring him to take it down. “I know the people in it and it is extreemly [sic] hurtful. please, this is completely unfair,” she wrote. In separate responses, both Daulerio and Darbyshire, the Gawker lawyer, refused to comply. “Best advice I can give you right now: do not make a big deal out of this because, as you can tell, the footage is blurry and you are not identified by name,” Daulerio wrote, assuming the e-mailer was the girl herself.

For the rest of the afternoon, Daulerio and the woman traded five e-mails. Finally, before handing the matter off to Darbyshire, Daulerio wrote, “It’s not getting taken down. I’ve said that. And it’s not a very serious matter. It is a dumb mistake you (or whomever) made while drunk in college. Happens to the best of us.”

The next day, though, he and Darbyshire decided that removing the video was “the best course of action,” Darbyshire says. But by then it had migrated to other sites. And a couple of days after that, Daulerio received a panicked call from the girl’s father. “He had this basic breakdown on the phone,” Daulerio recalled. “The guy is like, ‘You gotta understand, I’ve just been dealing with watching my daughter get fucked in a pile of piss for the past two days.’ “

Daulerio now says he wishes he hadn’t run the video. “It wasn’t funny,” he says. “It was possibly rape. I was trying to kind of put it in that same category [as the Dallas video]. I didn’t really look at the thing close enough to realize there’s maybe something a little more sinister going on here and a little more disturbing.”

As Daulerio himself notes, where it’s not possible to establish that an act witnessed involves consent, and indeed, may involve a sexual violation, a potential crime, there’s a special onus on the publisher not to propagate the video for titillation or humour, especially when videos can circulate so freely and easily.  But where are the written, editorial guidelines to help editors like Daulerio to make better decisions about what they should or shouldn’t publish when it comes user-contributed video raising these kinds of ethical questions, whatever kind of publisher they are?  There aren’t many in public, and those that there are don’t take much account of the ethical or human rights implications (because that’s what we’re talking about here).  When I worked on the Hub, we developed a very detailed set of internal editorial guidelines for dealing with raw video related specifically to human rights (here’s a very condensed public version – if I am permitted to share the full guidelines, I will do so in an update) – and we tested a lot of the content we received or saw against these guidelines.  Trying to make these kinds of editorial decisions is not easy, and we tried our best to explain many decisions in public, to help others facing similar decisions.  On occasion we found the guidelines either too specific, or too vague – sometimes our decisions contradicted the guidelines, because we were exercising judgement rather than applying hard-and-fast rules – but the key thing was that, because we were dealing with a new medium, with new kinds of content emerging all the time that challenged categories and boundaries, we needed some kind of framework to help situate us.

Part of the trouble is that we’re yet to see a genuinely balanced or informative widespread public debate about what constitutes ethical sharing, and ethical publishing of this kind of content.  The debate such as it is tends to resolve primarily into fears about loss of privacy, security, consent and/or dignity (including many in the human rights community), fears about intermediary liability (holding the platforms that receive and host UGC without reviewing it responsible for the content of the videos – not a popular position, but a perennial worry in terms of regulation), and proclamations that this is the new reality, and we’d all best toughen up (as Daulerio initially counsels the emailer in the above quote).   These debates need to move beyond hand-wringing, scare-mongering, and snark-flinging, in order to become a more productive and nuanced contribution to our evolving understanding of privacy, safety and security, and, ultimately, what we mean by transparency.  Seeing nuanced and genuine discussions about editorial decisions like these more widely in journalistic settings may help enrich those debates.  Let me know below if you’ve seen or published any.

As part of my continuing work with WITNESS, I’ve been working on a policy advocacy initiative called Cameras Everywhere (read my old friend and colleague Sam Gregory’s post introducing the work).  The work we’re doing looks in part at the emerging ethics of the online/mobile video environment – more on this soon.  We’ll make sure AJ gets the updates…

[Cross-posted from the YouTube blog]

About a month ago, as part of our series of blogs about human rights and video with, we asked for your thoughts and ideas on some of the key topics on the future of video activism. Now we’re responding to some of your top-voted questions and comments within the Moderator series we set up to facilitate the discussion. We’ve picked out some of the top-rated responses below, and to see the full discussion on privacy, impact, and classification of human rights videos online, click here.

But the conversation only grows from here. This week, we’ve gathered with around 300 activists, nonprofits, and thought leaders in Budapest for Internet at Liberty 2010, a conference that Google is sponsoring in conjunction with the Central European University to examine key issues in online free expression. We’ve been collecting your thoughts on how to keep the Internet safe for online free expression in another Moderator series; many of your ideas will be discussed in the panels and discussions that take place in Hungary. The conference will be live streamed, and we’ll post videos of the session to a special YouTube channel dedicated to the discussions that take place.

People everywhere use platforms like YouTube to share their stories with the world every day. Sometimes those stories are as simple as an idea, a thought or a diary of life through your eyes; other times, those stories expose abuses of power or human rights violations in ways that are changing how justice is served around the world. Whatever you decide to use the web for, we believe it’s vital to a free society to keep the Internet open, and it’s through discussions like these that we can continue to teach each other how to do so.

Steve Grove, Head of News & Politics, YouTube, and Sameer Padania for WITNESS
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[Cross-posted from the YouTube blog.]

Government police shutting down farmer’s protests in China. A tobacco company employing under-age workers in Kazakhstan. Iranian merchants striking to protest tax increases in Tehran. We’ve seen stories like these on our computers and phones every day, and we’ve been documenting many of them on our breaking news feed onCitizentube over the past few months. Videos like these are more than just breaking news images; they’re often political statements meant to bring about change.

Earlier this summer we started a blog series with WITNESS, a human rights video advocacy and training organization, examining the role of online video in human rights. So far we’ve talked about why video matters to human rights and how you can protect yourself and the people you film when uploading to YouTube. In this post, we want to raise some key topics about the future of human rights video online, and to hear your thoughts and ideas in a special Moderator series that we’ve set up on these questions:

How can uploaders balance privacy concerns with the need for wider exposure?

YouTube and other websites give citizens the opportunity to tell stories that would otherwise not get get heard. But what if wider exposure could be harmful to the people you’ve captured on video? At Google and YouTube, we talk a lot about the privacy of your personal data, but what about the privacy of your personal visual identity? There are some exciting technologies that can automatically identify human faces in digital media, but the implications of these technologies need to be considered carefully: if improperly implemented, they could make it even easier for governments and oppressive regimes to identify, track down and arrest activists or protesters (this has happened in Burma and Iran). While we’ve said before that people should consider blurring the faces in human rights videos and getting consent from those they film, inevitably judgment calls need to be made by uploaders who are trying to get footage out quickly to massive audiences to raise awareness. How do you think uploaders can find the right balance?

How can we stay alert to human rights footage without getting de-sensitized to it?

What image first opened your eyes to a human rights issue? In the past, in many countries, human rights images were largely filtered through the news media. But today, nearly everyone has seen a video or photo on the Internet that has made them aware of injustice. With access to these kinds of images getting easier, and more stories appearing from more places, the sheer quantity of this content risks either overwhelming viewers, or desensitizing us to its value. Researchers, educators and legislators are all thinking about how to build media literacy for the virtual age — and human rights is a growing part of that discussion. How do you think people can stay alert to the power of these images without becoming immune to them?

Does human rights content online require some kind of special status?

As many of the examples in this blog series illustrate, human rights video is unique, and it requires special consideration by viewers, activists, legislators and online platforms. At YouTube, our terms of service carve out special exceptions for videos that have educational, scientific, or documentary value. But in many cases, human rights content is subjective and requires special interpretation — and now that video can spread far and wide and can easily be reused and remixed beyond its original context (including by human rights abusers themselves), it’s even more important to follow some common guidelines. Every online hosting platform on the web has its own policies for dealing with this content and slowly, a new set of ethics and guidelines is developing in this arena. What do you think those guidelines should look like? And do you think human rights video deserves some kind of special status across the web? Why or why not?

We’d like to hear your thoughts on these questions. Submit your responses or questions to our Moderator series on Citizentube, in video or in text, and we’ll continue the conversation with thoughts on some of your top-voted submissions in a future post.

Steve Grove, Head of News & Politics, YouTube, and Sameer Padania for WITNESS