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Protecting yourself, your subjects and your human rights videos on YouTube

By Steve Grove and Sameer Padania for Witness

Head of News & Politics

Last week we started a blog series with WITNESS, a human rights video advocacy and training organization, highlighting the role that online video is playing in human rights advocacy. And though activists around the world have shown how powerful YouTube can be as a tool to raise awareness of human rights violations, this kind of work opens up new risks, online and offline. This post is designed to help you maximize the effect of your human rights videos while protecting those you're trying to help -- and ensuring your videos don't get taken down from YouTube. 

Before you even start shooting video, it's important to assess the risk, understand your audience, and develop your message. This short animation, part of a series that WITNESS released, will help you think through your preparation: 

One of the most important factors in creating human rights video is protecting the people you feature. In the past, videographers could generally control the size and scope of their audience, but nowadays it's safe to assume that if a human rights video is online, it's only a matter of time before the offenders see it. So it's always good practice to get informed consent from the people you film. That means making sure they understand the possible negative consequences of appearing in your video. You can also blur or obscure faces, to mitigate the ability of authorities to reveal someones identity or location. This is important: authorities in Burma, for example, have used online footage of protests to identify and arrest activists. Here's a good example of protecting an interviewee's voice and face, from a human rights organization in Israel: 

But you don't need editing software to protect someones identity. You can do it with back-lighting, too, as in this video: 

Once you've addressed the ethical and safety issues of your video, it's time to think about distribution. In some cases, it's not important how many people see your video, but who sees it. Activists worldwide use YouTube to post human rights footage and advocacy videos, but in some cases it may not be the best or only choice. You might have better results by keeping your footage private, but threatening to make it public -- or you may not need to put the video online at all and hold a local screening instead. 

That said, your potential to reach a large audience online is a big advantage. If you do decide to post your human rights footage to YouTube, you should thoroughly read our Community Guidelines to understand what kind of content is acceptable on the site. Though we don't accept violent or graphic content on YouTube, exceptions are made for content that is educational, scientific or documentary in nature. When reviewing the content that is flagged by our community, our bias is toward free expression -- with necessary limits to ensure the site remains a safe and vibrant platform for the discussion of ideas. Understanding the context surrounding your content, and its original intent, is important for our team. Here are a few things you can do to protect your videos and keep them on the site. 

  1. Add as much context as possible. Titling and tagging your video correctly is the best way to add context to your videos. When our team is reviewing flagged content, titles or tags with words as simple as “human rights" or "police abuse" will help us understand the context of the footage you're uploading. Try to add some specific information into the description: who is in the video, what is happening, where and when did it happen, and why. You can also add this detail directly onto the video itself, using our annotations tool.
  2. Get consent. As we mentioned before, it's important to get the consent of those you're filming. If someone flags your video and complains about appearing in it, we may have it taken down, particularly if they are not a public figure, are in a private place, or make other claims of harassment.
  3. Understand local laws. Given the global scope of the YouTube platform, we comply with different sets of laws in the various countries in which we're launched (to see where we're launched, go to the footer and click "Worldwide"). If the content in your video is illegal in one of these countries, we must comply with the local formal legal processes. For instance, that means that in Germany we don't stream videos that are sympathetic to Nazism. Know your local laws before you upload.
  4. Understand copyright. It's important to have a good handle on our copyright policies. If someone makes a claim against your video, perhaps because they believe they own the soundtrack or the footage itself, you can file a counter-notice. Though it's not YouTube's role to make fair use judgments on content, here is a helpful guide that WITNESS recommends you consult on fair use issues in online video, and some ethical considerations for when you're re-mixing human rights footage. Many content creators license their videos and audio for re-use with Creative Commons licenses.
  5. Be in touch with us. We want to hear from you. If you believe your account has been hacked, for example, visit our Help Center to let us know, and we'll investigate. We also track breaking news videos from citizen sources at CitizenTube, our news and political blog. Send us a link to your video in the comments section or tweet it to @citizentube.