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Why This Ex-White House Tech Honcho Is Now Working On Human Rights

For Nicole Wong, the White House’s ex-deputy CTO and Google’s former counsel, human rights video work is the next challenge.

Why This Ex-White House Tech Honcho Is Now Working On Human Rights
[Photo: Flickr user Meridican]

When musician Peter Gabriel formed the nonprofit organization Witness in 1992 to help activists use video for human rights work, the world was a much different place. The Internet was still largely restricted to computer labs, camcorders were still a middle-class status symbol, and YouTube wasn’t even a blip on the horizon. Now, of course, the world is much different. Witness grew over the years, became a much larger organization than the one Gabriel first launched, and is finding themselves dealing with a newer challenge: how to verify the flood of video content uploaded to the Internet.

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Witness, which works on projects covering everything from police brutality in the United States to sex trafficking in Eastern Europe to protecting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the most prominent organizations working at the intersection of video and human rights. The organization’s work means that they keep close tabs on Facebook and YouTube, among other sites. Their core operations center around teaching activists worldwide best practices when it comes to using smartphones for photo and video, along with helping to disseminate the footage they take.

For instance, Witness is partnering with YouTube and Google on the new Witness Media Lab to contextualize and verify video footage. YouTube, along with Storyful, also launched the separate YouTube Newswire initiative on June 18 to curate first-person news footage.

Last month, Witness announced that former White House deputy CTO Nicole Wong joined their board of directors. Before her tenure in the federal government, Wong was also Google’s deputy general counsel and legal director for products at Twitter.

When I spoke with Wong by phone, she noted that the space Witness–which was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine for helping to train smartphone-equipped civilians in Brazil’s favelas to film evidence of police brutality–is rapidly changing. She noted that new technologies such as real-time video streaming (cue Meerkat and Periscope) along with the use of big data applied to video analysis mean big challenges for her organization.

“There’s power where someone in a confrontation with a police officer is able to point a camera and say that it’s not just me here, it’s 5,000 people watching with me,” Wong explained. “That’s an enormous tool from a live-streaming perspective.”

The Ethics of Live-Streaming

Since joining Witness, one of the big issues Wong and her fellow board members have been dealing with is figuring out the ethics of live-streaming. Although live-streaming video has been part of the activist world for quite some time–Fast Company has previously covered the live-streams of Occupy Wall Street among other projects–real-time video has required significant technical and logistical skills on the part of the cameraperson in the past. Services like Meerkat and Periscope upend the equation by making real-time broadcasts to hundreds or thousands of people as easy as sending a tweet.

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“What happens if something very violent happens in a live-stream, and there’s a child watching?” Wong asked me. “How do you protect them from something violent that happens unexpectedly? How do you take video from a bullying event or a protest and protect the privacy of bystanders who happen to be on camera?”

There are also more serious live-streaming concerns that continue to challenge Witness. In cases of domestic abuse, the organization worries about protecting both the physical location of a home and children inside the residence. Equally worryingly, repressive regimes could use live-streams (augmented by big data and machine learning initiatives that automatically recognize individuals in video) to identify protesters at rallies and confrontations.

“It’s fascinating because I remember when Witness was born and Peter Gabriel was so impressed by the use of video technology to film Rodney King,” she added. “We’re still here in this moment, but the tech scene has changed. Witness at the beginning was getting this tech into the hands of people who can use it, but now everyone has it.”

Video And Verification

Another challenge for Wong and Witness is how much easier it is now to not only shoot but share videos. In Brazil, where Witness has done so much to capture documentation of police brutality, program director Sam Gregory told me WhatsApp is routinely used to share videos.

The rise of WhatsApp and services like Viber and QQ, which are used on a small scale in the United States but are absolutely massive around the world because they allow users to save money on expensive SMS messages, poses a challenge to anyone looking to put videos in context. Because content is shared privately and doesn’t go to a massive searchable reservoir similar to YouTube’s archives or the Twitter feed, the opportunity for videos being taken out of context is a major issue.

“There are lots of verification arrangements,” Gregory explained, but they tend to involve a lot of detective work, contextual understanding on the part of the verifier, and foreign-language skills. For news organizations and non-governmental organizations trying to quickly make sense of breaking news situations, this can be difficult. Verifying footage shared in this way is a new logistical challenge.

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Changing Tech

Unfortunately for the world, there’s no shortage of human rights violations to be filmed. Because services like YouTube have become ingrained into global culture, and reaching a massive transnational audience is as easing as clicking “Post” on Facebook or Twitter, video will keep playing an important role in getting the news out from the United States to Zimbabwe.

This means understanding context is of equal importance. Wong, whose role at Google included overseeing the acquisition of YouTube, told the story of how she navigated YouTube’s terms of services violations in the case of Wael Abbas, an Egyptian activist who used the video site to document incidents of police brutality and mob violence.

“YouTube at the time had overall guidelines–no pornography, no copyright violations, no extreme graphic violence. I was deputy general counsel, and it came to our team a very graphic video of a man being beaten terribly in a room. The team decided to take it down because of terms of service violations, but then others including Witness told us it was Wael Abbas’, and showed an Egyptian man being beaten in an interrogation room. It was put up with no context, so we didn’t know what it was,” she added.

In the meantime, live-streams from protests will show up on Periscope, and grainy footage of civilian massacres will be shared among expats on WhatsApp. The challenge, for Witness and others, will be just how to make sense of that flood.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the launch of the YouTube Newswire and Witness Media Lab on June 18 and to clarify Wong’s statements.