Before there was YouTube, the Internet video phenomenon that is currently streaming more than 100 million videos each day, there was George Holliday. Holliday was a mere by-stander 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 ten-year old boys abducting and later murdering two-year old James Bulger in 1993 shocked an entire country.
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. Indeed, most news reporting is not unexpected – press conferences, staged photo opportunities, and even hidden cameras are all designed to capture specific images that typically offer few surprises.
Many observers have anointed 2006 as the year of Internet video, yet it is also the year that unexpected video has suddenly become expected. While much of the attention lavished on YouTube has focused on its impact on the entertainment industry, the bigger story may ultimately be how Internet video, in combination with ubiquitous video cameras embedded in millions of cell phones, has dramatically increased the likelihood that someone, somewhere will capture video evidence of once-hidden events that can be made instantly available to the world.
Consider several events from the past two weeks:
- U.S. 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, California’s largest university, was rocked by a video showing school police repeatedly using a taser gun on a student after they demanded that the student, who did not have the requisite identification, leave a campus library. The video, captured by an unidentified person in the library with their cellphone, has been viewed more than one million times on YouTube alone.
- Michael Richards, the actor who played Kramer on the hit television series Seinfeld, was captured on film barking a stream of racist and offensive comments at a Los Angeles comedy club. As thousands watched the amateur video on the Internet, Richards appeared within hours on the Late Show with David Letterman to issue a public apology (the clip of Richards' appearance has also been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Internet video sites).
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.
While there are some obvious benefits that arise from the transparency and potential accountability that can come from video evidence of controversial events, 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 that facilitate Internet video distribution.
Those questioned crystallized this month at an Ottawa-area school, after two 13-year old students posted classroom video taken with a cellphone of their teacher yelling at a fellow student on YouTube. News reports indicate that the video may have been staged, with students inducing 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, hundreds of tiny video-capable devices, an incredibly array of video-ready cellphones, 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. He can reached at email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.