from #wikileaks to #wikiwitness ?

This article makes an extraordinarily good point, and one I’ve sort of thought about but not to its logical conclusion. In terms of demanding transparency, the rise of “citizen journalism” has been critical, and duly noted by many. But as author Luke Allnutt points out Forget WikiLeaks, We Need A WikiWitness, the evidence (in terms of tweets, blogs, photographs, and video content) is in continual danger of being censored online, especially by privately owned companies in the absence of any concrete and comprehensive legislation protecting this type of material. As he points out:

The video of the murder of Neda will live on; as will the Egyptian man getting gunned down by security forces; or the Bahraini man getting shot in the head repeatedly with rubber bullets at close range. Never before is there so much opportunity to preserve and recreate a living history for future generations.

Except there is a problem here: the information gatekeepers. After protesters broke into the headquarters of the Egyptian security agency, they removed a slew of digital evidence, some of which ended up on Flickr. But Flickr removed the images, citing a violation of its Community Guidelines (more on that here).

Flickr’s citation of copyright infringement is absurd in any case: Egyptian copyright law is nearly nonexistent, certainly not for online material. And from the U.S. point of view, there are two possible avenues: Firstly under U.S. law, federal government materials are not copyrightable. Or secondly if the Egyptian government is to be considered a valid copyright holder, then according to U.S.’s own DCMA rules, Flickr should have served @3arabway with a take down notice first, rather than silently and arbitrarily removing the material. Flickr is on more secure ground by claiming violation of community rules, but suppose all these had been pictures that @3arabway had personally taken, rather than collecting from the SS offices? The stench of arbitrariness on Flickr’s part still remains.

This problem is being noted a number of places, even the relatively conservative WSJ: Should People Depend on Social Networks to Protect Democracy?, The other issue is that even though there’s a massive amount of material that is uploaded “live” onto the internet, it disperses fairly quickly afterwards, under the onslaught of later current material (on a multitude of different events). There is also an echo chamber problem where people not at the “ground zero” of an event forward material pertaining to the event to the point where it’s difficult to distinguish between good or accurate material an inaccuracies or even falsehoods. Sorting out eyewitness material is in of itself a meaty issue to tackle.

Allnutt ultimately proposes something that I think is absolutely brilliant and should be started up somewhere, a crowdsourced means of preserving witness data, a la “WikiWitness”:

Whatever you think about WikiLeaks as an organization, websites offering people a secure channel to leak information are now a reality. By setting up something like WikiWitness — a secure, safe platform that guarantees anonymity and ideally connected to something as ubiquitous as YouTube and linked to something with the credentials of, say, the UN — the terabytes of video, photos, or other raw data could be archived for use in an investigation, or simply to preserve history, without the risk of a corporation deleting it. (It isn’t just about archiving the Internet, but archiving what’s in people’s pockets.)

The content might not even need to be visible in real time — that would help get around the fact that such evidence can often take months to verify, can actually serve to be inflammatory in times of crisis, and crucially would prevent parties from flagging them for abuse and thus deleting them. To gain trust, it would need to be a channel that would be seen (as much as possible) as neutral and impervious to the demands of governments seeking to censor the information.

Something like Freedom Box Needs A Good User Interface might make a start at this, particularly for uncensored network access but the need for some kind of protected repository seems necessary as well. Perhaps along the lines Cryptome but with a broader focus or one of event preservation.

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