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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 November 2006, 10:56 GMT
Private life exposed by net video
Internet law professor Michael Geist wonders what effect ubiquitous cameras and easy ways to share video will have on notions of public and private.

Still from George Holliday's footage of Rodney King being beaten
LA Police officers faced charges over the Rodney King beating
Before there was YouTube, the net video phenomenon, there was George Holliday.

Mr Holliday was a bystander on a Los Angeles street in 1992 when he captured amateur video of police officers beating Rodney King. The incident, which sparked riots and national outrage about police brutality, would likely never have come to light without the existence of the Holliday video.

Over the past few decades, there have been other instances of amateur video or surveillance cameras capturing major moments.

Many cameras captured the collapse of the twin towers in 2001; however, there was only one clear amateur video of the first plane hitting the North Tower.

Similarly, there are numerous news clips of the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, but Abraham Zapruder's infamous film is the only known video of the assassination itself.

These incidents are not limited to North America. In Britain, the grainy shopping centre surveillance camera footage of two 10-year-old boys abducting two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 prior to his murder shocked a nation.

Fresh look

What makes these videos noteworthy is not only the indelible connection they have with the events themselves, but also how serendipitous they are, since until recently many potentially controversial events have gone unrecorded and therefore unnoticed.

Prof Michael Geist, Michael Geist
the cameras are now always rolling
Michael Geist
Indeed, most news reporting is expected - press conferences, staged photo opportunities, and even hidden cameras are all designed to capture specific images that offer few surprises.

Many observers anointed 2006 as the year of internet video, yet it is also the year that unexpected video has suddenly become expected.

Much of the attention lavished on YouTube has focused on its impact on the entertainment industry but the bigger story may be how internet video, thanks to the ubiquity of camera phones, has dramatically increased the likelihood that someone, somewhere will capture video evidence of once-hidden events.

Consider just three events from the past two weeks:

  • US Army officials were forced to respond to concerns arising from a YouTube-posted amateur video that displayed several male soldiers duct-taping a female soldier to a pole in Iraq.
  • The University of California at Los Angeles was rocked by a video showing school police repeatedly using a Taser gun on a student after they demanded that the man, who did not have the requisite identification, leave a campus library. The video has been viewed more than one million times on YouTube alone.
  • Michael Richards, the actor who played Kramer on the television series Seinfeld, was videoed barking a stream of racist and offensive comments at a Los Angeles comedy club. Thousands watched the amateur video on the internet and Richards appeared within hours on the Late Show with David Letterman to issue a public apology.
  • Camera shy

    These high profile incidents are just the tip of the video iceberg as the cameras are now always rolling.

    Internet video sites receive thousands of new videos every hour, with sites such as YouTube hosting unedited footage of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, clips that appear to show police brutality, and videos from universities and academic conferences featuring violent confrontations between students and teachers.

    There are some obvious benefits that arise from the transparency and potential accountability that can come from video evidence of controversial events.

    But the emergence of an always-on video society raises some difficult questions about the appropriate privacy-transparency balance, the ethics of posting private moments to a global audience, and the responsibility of websites hosting the clips.

    Screengrab of YouTube homepage, BBC
    YouTube has been one of the web's big hits in 2006
    Those questions crystallised this month at an Ottawa-area school, after two 13-year-old students posted a cell-phone video on YouTube of their teacher yelling at a fellow student. News reports suggest the students induced the teacher into the shouting match specifically so that it could be captured on video.

    Although the video has since been removed from YouTube, the teacher is currently on stress leave, the two students have been suspended, and the school has banned personal electronic devices from the classroom.

    As technology continues to evolve, it is unlikely that such measures will prove successful. With built-in video cameras on laptop computers, portable devices and cell phones, and widespread internet access, the clip culture is rapidly morphing from bits of favourite television shows to videos of our friends, neighbours, and even ourselves.

    Rather than banning the technology, we must instead begin to grapple with the implications of these changes by considering the boundaries between transparency and privacy. As our expectations of the availability of video changes, so too must our sense of the video rules of the road.

    Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

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