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This summer, Steve Grove of YouTube and Sameer Padania of WITNESS have been writing a series of posts on the official YouTube blog about the use of online video in human rights advocacy. Yesterday, they invited their readers to offer feedback via Google Moderator on three key questions faced by human rights advocates:

  • How can uploaders balance privacy concerns with the need for wider exposure?
  • How can we stay alert to human rights footage without getting de-sensitized to it?
  • Does human rights content online require some kind of special status?

None of these questions are specific to YouTube or even video – they are important questions for every website, print publication, brochure, annual report, photograph, or video produced by human rights defenders.

EarthRights School Burma students on a field trip in northern Thailand

The first question, in particular, strikes at the very heart of a challenge I face every week when posting content on our website, a challenge faced by communications teams at human rights organizations all over the world. Through our staff, students and fact-finders we’ve accumulated a surplus of wonderful photographs from throughout Southeast Asia and other regions in which we work, but when it comes time to choose photos for our website or a report, our process closely resembles paralysis because for every photo we need to decide which faces can be shown and which need to be obscured. Many of the people in our photos are themselves human rights advocates working under varying degrees of secrecy. When we’re lucky, as in the image above, the photographer will spare us the trouble by making the security* decisions for us, with the lens, but more often than not we have to contact the subject or the photographer to ask for a security recommendation, or solicit input from key staff members. This slows down the publishing process and creates more work for us all.

Grove and Padania wrote:

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.

Frequently, here at ERI, I’ll err on the side of caution by either blurring all of the faces or, too often, leaving the photo out altogether – while we have over ten thousand photos in our archive, only about 300 of them have been shared with the world. Occasionally, whether due to an oversight or a change in someone’s status, I’ll learn that a published photo poses a security risk, and I’ll scramble to edit or remove it and anxiously hope that Google’s cached copy is updated quickly. Every photo we publish, even with the faces hidden, creates some degree of risk for its subjects.

What can we do to improve this situation? I’m currently working on streamlining our workflow for cataloguing and publishing photos and video, so that security issues are flagged and permanently recorded earlier in the process, but I also believe that human rights advocates, both inside and outside of ERI, need more and better training on how to shoot higher quality photos with fewer potential security issues, so that they can publish those photos quickly and widely with less fear of negative consequences. I also hope major service providers, including YouTube, will provide tools to aid content producers in obscuring faces in content already published on their services.

I look forward to seeing how Grove & Padania’s public discussion plays out and what sort of ideas they gather from the community (and I hope some of this post’s readers will contribute to that discussion).

Thanks to Adrianne Jeffries, whose ReadWriteWeb post drew my attention to Grove & Padania’s blog series yesterday.



* While Grove & Padania refer to the “privacy concerns” around video advocacy, I prefer to consider it as a security issue. Human rights advocates are highly concerned with privacy (protection from exposure of their personal details) not because of concerns about privacy iteslf, but because a privacy breach exposes them to enormous threats to their personal security, including harassment, abuse, imprisonment, abduction, and death. “Privacy,” from my perspective, is an understatement of the severity of these threats.