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Live streaming: should such tech be restricted or banned?

Nigel Morris-Co...

When Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian man, turned on the camera on his mobile phone and filmed himself and his actions during a murderous attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 people, it brought home to the world that the idea of web-casting, so beloved of American TV cop-show writers, can be even more horrifying when fiction turns to fact. Yet, the dangers of live streaming have long been known and criminals in a wide range of activities have been making use of it for a long time. Is this a "freedom" too far?

When British police brought a prosecution for live streaming the sexual abuse of children it was no surprise to those who watch how technology is abused. It was 2014 and it was already old hat. Operation Endeavour covered14 countries, including Australia and the United States, where viewers paid to watch the abuse of children, particularly from The Philippines. As more and more investigations proceeded, the secret nature of the rings was disclosed. Some shrieked about "the Dark Web" but in truth, that's just because it's an easy hook for lazy journalists. The real story goes back much further. Child prostitution has a long history in The Philippines: I wrote about it in my book "How not to be a money launderer" in 1996 and even then I was reporting what others had identified and made public. It is a misnomer to call it "child prostitution" because it was, and remains, institutionalised abuse after which children, some very young, are left physically and emotionally broken.

Or dead.

Setting up a private streaming service is a piece of cake. And free. Did we say "private?" Well, think of a computer the size of a small paperback hooked up to a wifi at a coffee shop acting as a relay and, hey presto, who needs the Dark Web? Anonymity for the price of a couple of Frappucini.

Live streaming via webcam has been around since more or less the dawn of the internet. The webcam is credited to a research project at the University of Cambridge where students worked in one room but their coffee machine was in another. The solution: create a method of watching the coffee pot to see when it was ready and/or when it needed refilling. In 1993, when there was barely anything recogniseable as the World Wide Web, Dr Quentin Stafford-Fraser and his team allowed public access to the video feed but for those outside the department's network there was no live streaming: but by asking nicely, other computers could receive a very grainy screen grab. That led to what can be considered the world's first viral spread as computer users all over the world told each other about the coffee pot. Literally millions of people accessed it.

Fast forward twenty five years and we have high-resolution cameras in our pockets and 4G connections to publish and distribute (don't call it "sharing") pretty much anything you can point your phone at. And there is no one to say "don't do that."

There is a generation and a half that have grown up with freedom of access to self-publishing tools such as youtube, snapchat and telegram. The operators of those platforms have long argued that they are vehicles not publishers. In some countries that argument has been lost then later, to all intents and purposes, won. Google for example has argued that it cannot be considered a re-publisher for material it finds during its collection of data from the web. But, once politicians have found themselves the victims of lies, freely distributed, they began to try to crack down on "fake news." In Malaysia, laws which are non-internet specific have recently been used to great effect in relation to those who have posted on social media messages that are considered insulting to Islam. In Thailand, a similar approach has been taken in relation to messages regarded as insulting to the King. In the UK and in the USA, there have been actions against those posting so-called hate speech, particularly against sexual minorities. There are, therefore, precedents that go outside the strict question of the internet but in each of those cases the action has been against those posting, not those providing the infrastructure, for publishing.

Facebook Live, the platform used by the Christchurch killer, is in a league of its own now that Telegram is, to all intents and purposes, dead. Yes, there are still free "conference call" services using services such as Skype (Microsoft) and Whatsapp (Facebook) as well as FaceTime (apple) but they all provide a degree of accountability. Facebook continues to allow anonymity (via false identification) to its platform and that includes Facebook Live. Facebook Live uses the marketing muscle of Facebook to build credibility - TV stations simulcast using the platform and encourage viewers to use it because of its interactive features. Also, it's stable whereas home-grown platforms might be a bit flaky if they are not properly set up.

The end result is that Facebook Live is, albeit inadvertently, specifically designed to be the perfect tool for those who want a big audience for a live event.

Does society need a platform for the world and his dog to broadcast live to millions? No, obviously not. But equally, is it desirable to prevent such developments? Probably not. The question is not whether to allow it but how to manage it and to prevent unacceptable content reaching the 'net. It is not good enough for companies to say that they should not be responsible for foreseeable harm.

Just how instant and powerful is Facebook Live? The NZ video was not only broadcast live but stored on Facebook's servers. In Facebook-speak, it has been "shared" many times and all over the world, efforts have been continuing to identify copies and remove them. Facebook has said that the original video was viewed more than 4,000 times before it was taken down. There are no figures for how many other copies Facebook or other platforms may be hosting. Supposedly reputable media outlets, including global broadcasters and news websites, made copies and ran extracts from their own servers. Whether those can be attacked under obscenity laws remains to be seen.

What can be done? The fact is that such things cannot be stopped. The tech to replicate such services is readily available and if you are sitting at a computer rather than a phone or a tablet as you read this, you have the kit to run it (if you have the ability to set it up) and if you are using cable internet, you have the necessary infrastructure. So, if the tech cannot be banned, is there another target?

The answer to that is a resounding "yes." Working backwards, the attraction of social media for such actions is the ease of publicity and distribution. Forwarding copies or links is simple, quick and cheap. Facebook blames website 8chan for the rapid distribution of the video, saying that it lasted 16 minutes and they were first told of it 29 minutes after it started. But here is the scary part - yet it brings both hope and reason for criticism. Facebook has said in a statement that there were approximately one million five hundred uploads of copies of the video, of which it intercepted 1.2 million before they were published.

That both answers and raises a question: Facebook is quite capable of identifying and removing illicit content. That's the answer. The question is why it feels that it must rely on complaints before doing so. Does it, and other platforms, not have a duty to prevent the publication of such material in the first place? Does it feel that it is appropriate to rely on "activists" or others to identify content that should not, in the minds of any right-thinking person, be available at all?

The answer to the problem is simple but internet platforms won't like it: they should vet live streams before they are permitted to go live. That should be part of their cost of doing business and if that means they must charge for access to some or all of their services, so be it. Does that turn them into censors? Yes, in the way that newspapers are censors for the content they publish.

Will users like it? No, of course not. But they have to learn that with freedom comes responsibility and that free does not always mean free of cost.

Further reading: Cleaning up the 'Net : https://www.antimoneylaunderin...

Further reading:
How not to be a money launderer https://www.antimoneylaunderin...

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