Problem Statement and Introduction

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The average citizen’s ability to capture video in countries around the world – in the form of cheap digital recorders and cell phone cameras – combined with the spread of free online video hosting websites has created a powerful new tool for human rights. But, with some notable exceptions,[1] this tool has not been harnessed to the extent that it could or should be. In our research, we identified some problems that led to this state of affairs and then attempted to work out practical solutions. This Section is particularly focused on describing the problems we identified.

Historical Overview

Video has long been recognized as a uniquely powerful tool with which to document human rights abuse and advocate for change. Videos and photographs from the liberated Nazi concentration camps at Bergen-Belsen and Dachau documented the horrific abuses of the Holocaust and precipitated the international demand that Nazi leaders be brought to justice.[2] Soon after home televisions proliferated in the United States, video had a tremendous effect on the Civil Rights movement. Stark images of discrimination, segregation, and brutality, such as those surrounding the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas’s public schools in 1957, captured the American attention.[3] Domestically, many Americans, including many of the journalists themselves, were appalled and thus motivated to promote and advocate for change.[4] The continued reports out of Little Rock also proved to be a significant source of embarrassment for the United States internationally, which generated an entirely different set of pressures on the Eisenhower administration.[5]

However, at this time the video cameras belonged to large corporations that could afford the new and expensive technology needed to both capture and broadcast video. The networks could exercise a strong amount of editorial control with regards to the quantity and type of content recorded and broadcast.

The spread of camcorders and videocassettes made it easier for individual citizens to document human rights violations and abuse. In the United States, the dramatic home video footage of Rodney King’s 1991 beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers stirred up public awareness and concern over police brutality and discrimination. Shortly thereafter, the human rights organization Witness was created with the goal of putting camcorders in the hands of human rights activists to help them document abuse.[6] At that point in time, however, the means of distribution and broadcast of video were still largely controlled by major networks. Human rights activists could capture video more easily, but they could not guarantee an audience.

In recent years the spread of ubiquitous cheap cell phone cameras combined with free online video hosting has made it possible for millions of people to capture video and broadcast it to the world. While there are examples of poignant videos that have spread in recent years and dramatically captured the public’s attention,[7] video for human rights does not appear to have taken off as one might expect in light of these democratizing technologies.

The Problems

The raw number of video-capable devices operating in oppressive regimes suggests capacity for a lot more video sharing than currently occurs.[8] There are well-documented problems facing the people who share videos online right now that may also serve to prevent the medium from reaching its full potential. This section seeks to identify some of those problems and begin to sketch out the solutions developed more fully in subsequent sections of our project.


One of the biggest areas of concern in the human rights media space is reprisals by adversaries, which are typically governments or their officials, but may also include corporate actors or others. The reprisals may be targeted at any person involved in the video recording, production, or dissemination.

First, and perhaps most obviously, the person doing the filming or uploading/exfiltrating the video may be targeted for punishment.[9] Authorities may have a number of ways of identifying the source of video that appears online. For example, they could be monitoring or logging Internet traffic within their borders, allowing them to easily track less sophisticated Internet users who attempt to post data. Even more sophisticated users will be vulnerable to governments that use correspondingly sophisticated snooping techniques. In addition, governments might be able to use metadata or circumstantial evidence from the videos after they are broadcast to identify authors. Even if such information is not immediately accessible to the average web user, governments may exert pressure on host websites to reveal information kept internally, such as server logs or private messages.[10] Large multinational corporations that serve as content or communication platforms might be particularly susceptible to this form of government pressure because of the interests of their employees and shareholders.[11]

Second, the person or people filmed in human rights media might be targeted for punishment. After the 2009 protests in Iran, the government circulated photographs and stills from videos in an attempt to identify anti-government protesters.[12] Traditionally, documentary filmmakers in the human rights arena operated by asking for consent from their subjects,[13] yet shooting spontaneous video on the street or the use video obtained second-hand may not afford filmmakers the ability to request or obtain consent from subjects. Accordingly, the need to protect the subjects depicted within videos is particularly acute for filmmakers who wish to broadcast recordings of events that may lead to reprisals against subjects of the video. Videographers might also desire to protect the dignity of a subject who has been subjected to certain types of treatment.[14]


A second set of problems centers around problems of access both by uploaders and by viewers. It is well-known that many repressive regimes block or limit access to the Internet or particular websites.[15] Undoubtedly, repressive regimes would seek to limit access to content hosting sites for people who would like to upload videos documenting human rights abuses. Even if a website can use technical workarounds that enhance safety and access, such as VPNs, public key encryption, or other methods of evading Internet-blocking, they face the problem of communicating this information to people on the ground in repressive regimes.

Furthermore, some actors have shown a willingness to actively attack human rights websites via DDoS and other methods in order to prevent visitors from uploading or watching video, creating serious access problems for technically unsophisticated websites.[16] It then becomes highly important that any website billing itself as a human rights repository be able to maintain access and uptime for all visitors.


Finally, there is no single place to “go” in order to find new human rights media or video content. In December 2007, Witness created The Hub to provide a central repository for human rights video.[17] However, it discontinued accepting new content in 2009, citing technical difficulties and changing priorities.[18] At present, the spread of human rights video content appears to be primarily viral, and therefore, a bit haphazard. A number of disjointed avenues exist for distribution, but there is no centralized channel or place that serves as a home for content. One might also be concerned about the authenticity and/or lack of context that accompanies videos posted to disparate, relatively unknown hosts by anonymous authors.

In our view, a host that consistently provides authentic videos of interest to the human rights community, media, and concerned people throughout the world would be a strong step forward. By developing a consistent track record of impact, such a site could then develop a strong reputation encouraging new content to be sent.


Pharos represents our solutions to many of these problems. Some of the solutions are technical, but many are organizational. It would be entirely possible for actors to tackle some or all of these problems individually, but our hope and belief is that one organization could take on the entire set of issues most effectively. Working with existing organizations and developing a track record of safety, security, judgment, and impact would start a virtuous cycle that could have an immense impact on human rights advocacy throughout the world.


  1. See, e.g.,
  2. See
  3. See, e.g., Gene Roberts & Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation 182 (2006) (“the daily visual broadcasts of news as it happened [in Little Rock] had a profound impact on the nation’s understanding of the race drama in the South.”)
  4. See generally id at Chapter 11.
  5. Michael L. Krenn, “Unfinished Business”: Segregation and Diplomacy at the 1958 World’s Fair, 20 Diplomatic History 591 (1996), available at:
  7. See supra note 1.
  8. Cf. While many of the phones operating in oppressive regimes will not have video cameras, it is reasonable to think that a significant portion do have recording capabilities, meaning that millions of such cameras are currently operational.
  9. See (describing the arrest of one Burmese journalist for cooperation with news media and noting that another journalist received a 20 year prison sentence “after a military court found she had provided video for the Democratic Voice of Burma.”)
  10. For example, Yahoo! provided substantial information regarding at least one journalist to the Chinese government in 2005, citing its obligation “to operate within each country's laws.” See
  11. See generally Goldsmith & Wu, Who Controls the Internet 49–86 (2006).
  12. See;
  13. A discussion regarding informed consent and the need to protect subjects can be found at
  14. For example, the treatment of Emad el-Kabir at the hands of the Egyptian police was particularly gruesome and documented on cell phone video. See,8599,1581608,00.html. While activists were able to convince the victim to come forward in this case, in future cases they might want to disseminate such footage without providing the name or identity of the victim, particularly if the victim is unknown.
  15. Or in the case of Egypt, currently, the entire internet.
  16. See
  18. See