The Coming Government Showdown over Live Video Streaming

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Over the last few days, we’ve dramatically seen the force of Internet live video streaming, and the obvious hints of policy battles to come regarding this powerful technology are clearly emerging.

Beyond the tragic images of a man shot to death by police in his car, and then live scenes of a sniper in Dallas who ultimately killed five officers, we’ve already seen other ugly shadows of what might become the new normal, including a streamed rape and suicide — both streamed by the perpetrators themselves for maximal publicity.

And yes, this is only the beginning. For while it has been possible to stream live video from portable devices since years ago, only now has the concept reached a critical mass, an “inflection” point where it is likely to have enormous impact on society at large.

While most of the attention to date has been on Facebook’s video streaming app, Google and other firms also have live streaming services, and that number can only be expected to grow for the foreseeable future, around the world.

Notably, these streaming systems typically include the means for viewers to comment live back to the video originators during the streams themselves, to do everything from expressing admiration or condemnation, to “simply” urging them on.

The positive public interest and probative value in the streaming of many public events is fairly obvious in most cases.

But even in the public space the associated dilemmas are vast.

Unfortunately, large audiences can bring out the worst in some people, and there is an enormous range of potential abuse for this technology in an ecosystem of unfiltered live streaming — in terms of risk-taking behavior to please your streaming audience, encouraging violence (either explicitly or implicitly), privacy attacks, and other abuses.

Even when no harm is actually intended, the mere fact of a live streamed dramatic event with a significant viewership will in some situations lead to potentially dangerous “flash crowds” as nearby viewers rush to participate in person.

And while these risks exist aplenty even with streaming from public places, the potential problems likely multiple by orders of magnitude when we consider live video streaming from private homes or businesses, perhaps by surreptitious means.

The bottom line is that live video streaming is a quintessential tool. It can be used for enormous good that could greatly enhance public knowledge and participatory democracy. It can also provide a morbid audience and incentive for hideous monsters (including both individuals and groups) whose real world streamed depravities could make fictional “torture porn” films pale by comparison.

So we find ourselves facing a familiar dilemma. If live video streaming firms don’t do the hard policy work required to provide reasonable controls over and filtering of this content, we can be sure that governments around the world — both of their own volition and pressured by their citizens — will move forcefully to enact control and censorship regimes to meet their perceived agendas.

And history tells us that once that kind of censorship takes hold, it’s extremely difficult to stop from spreading in all directions.

This makes it more imperative than ever that we move forward toward establishing best practices and policies to harness this uber-powerful technology in a reasonable manner, before governments move in with possibly knee-jerk “solutions” that will almost certainly make matters worse, not better.

I don’t claim to have any magic wands available for addressing these complicated issues, though my gut feeling is that we should be able to harness the enormous crowdsourcing power of the Net to rapidly categorize streams in real time and trigger filtering or other actions as appropriate.

But just sitting on our hands about this is not a viable option. That is, unless our goal is to see an incredibly useful technology being branded as “the enemy” just as it’s really beginning to flower.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

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