Challenges and Critiques

From Identifying Difficult Problems in Cyberlaw
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This section of the wiki acknowledges core criticisms of the Pharos project and recommends future work that can be done to address some of these concerns. It addresses foundational critiques of the project, practical concerns, and potential unintended consequences that may result from the project.

Foundational Considerations: Defining the Problem

The Pharos Project is premised on the idea that in spite of a rise in low-cost video technologies, a dearth of video footage about human rights abuses currently exists.[1] Assuming for the moment that there exists a true dearth of videos about human rights abuses, it is unclear what has stymied the use of video technologies to document and report human rights abuses. It is possible that few human rights videos have been circulated for reasons independent of a need for a new technological system that sanitizes and serves as an end-to-end upload-and-hosting service for human rights videos.

For example, internet penetration in Africa remains low—one 2010 study estimates that only about 10.9 percent of the population in the continent has internet access. The lack of internet access could explain why human rights activists make limited use of video technologies to upload human rights content onto the web. Social norms may also drive whether and how technologies are used to further human rights. In addition, some activists might choose not to film and circulate videos documenting human rights abuses because increasing international exposure of a particular type of government abuse may not stop government abuses. The “range of human rights abuses” is wide, and human rights advocacy taking the form of “pursuing reform through formal judicial routes or diplomatic channels” might be more effective in a variety of situations. The solution offered by Pharos may be ill-suited to addressing first-order issues like network connection and practices surrounding technology use.

More precision is needed in defining the problems Pharos hopes to solve. In internal discussions, the Pharos team proposed several potential hypotheses, each of which should be critically examined:

Human rights videos are not widely disseminated on the internet because:

• There is no tool to sanitize human rights videos (i.e. remove identifying information), and human rights abuses are not being recorded on video or uploaded to the internet because of the fear of jeopardizing the physical security of individuals featured in human rights videos or of the uploader. • Human rights activists do not have the technological knowledge to use existing “liberation technologies” like Tor that can provide some measure of anonymity and security to the human right activist. • Current technologies (like Tor) that can be used by human rights activists are being underleveraged because human rights activists do not know about their existence. • For-profit services, such as YouTube, are particularly susceptible to government requests for takedown; as a result, human rights videos are not being posted to these for-profit hosting sites.

Some of the problems above can be addressed without the creation of a new organization and the design of a new technological system. For example, in order to address human rights activists’ lack of technical expertise, some researchers have run technology training sessions. Patrick Meier, a researcher studying the use of technologies in civil resistance against repressive regimes, has led technology training sessions to teach individuals how to use technologies like Ushahidi, a tool that uses crowdsourced information to map the emergence of natural disasters and government abuses against citizens.

If existing technologies are not being leveraged to the extent possible by human rights activists because they do not know of these tools’ existence, training sessions or branding efforts may similarly be used to inform human rights activists of the tools at their disposal. Low-cost video editing software that strips metatags from the video and enables face blurring could provide a similarly narrow solution to address the problem of government efforts to identify and jail dissidents who upload or are featured in human rights videos.

Going forward, more information providing support for the hypotheses debated within the team is needed to determine if a new technological system is needed, and if so, what features of such a technological system would most aid the dissemination of human rights media.

Practical Concerns

Costs and Funding

Governance and Defining Acceptable Content

Other Challenges

Unintended Consequences

Threats to Human Security

Government Crackdowns on Internet Access

Worsening of Human Rights Conditions


  1. Contra E-mail from Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping, Ushahidi and Doctoral Research Fellow, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard University (Feb. 1, 2011, 18:21 PDT) (on file with author) (stating that there is currently no dearth of footage about human rights abuses circulating on the internet, specifically pointing to the videos on YouTube and documenting government-endorsed brutality against civilian protesters in Egypt as Mubarak struggles to stay in power).