Shortly after Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu in the South Pacific in March 2015, humanitarian first responders and journalists began flying drones over the affected area to document the devastation.
Many in the humanitarian community have adopted a voluntary code of conduct that lays out some guidelines about how to fly drones safely and gather information in a way that respects people’s privacy. But there is no such code of conduct for the growing number of private and commercial entities that use drones, including news outlets, which are resisting even non-binding guidelines that might restrict access to the air.
Here’s why we need such guidelines: Legal scholars argue that airspace is neither wholly private nor wholly public, but something in between. By resisting any privacy safeguards in this nebulous space, media organizations and their representatives may be facilitating massive violations of privacy by large corporations under the guise of protecting free speech.
Just over a year ago, President Barack Obama called on interested members of the public to collaboratively “develop and communicate best practices for privacy, accountability, and transparency” as they relate to drone use. The goal is to come up with guidelines for commercial and private drone operators that would allow the budding unmanned aerial vehicle industry to develop while also preserving the right to privacy—something like what the humanitarian community has already done, but for all non-governmental drone users.
Obama put an agency of the Department of Commerce called the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, known as the NTIA, in charge of organizing the process. The NTIA group has met five times, and has scheduled a sixth meeting for mid-May, at which participants hope to agree to a finalized set of guidelines.
Lobbyists for media companies who have the strongest objections to guidelines that would protect privacy. “We have a real problem with privacy rights groups trying to say that you have a privacy right when you are out in public,” says Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association.
For news organizations, the rationale for not restricting drone use is simple. “You don’t need a person’s permission to photograph them when they are out in public,” says Osterreicher. The rules should not be any different, he says, if a photographer is using a camera attached to a drone: “We should not be creating new laws based solely on the fact that it involves a new technology.”