cjr.org

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.”

This is a long, well thought through article from Columbia, a highly respected school whose faculty and students are on the frontlines. It is not a simple issue and it cannot be summarized to fit on this page. There are implications to both the First and Fourth Amendments as the business interests of news organizations directly clash with our individual right to privacy.
What I like most about this article is the statement that  “For all the promise of drone journalism, there are relatively few examples of drones having been used in the US in a journalistically noteworthy way. There’s every reason to believe drones will become only a useful niche tool for journalism—a new sort of telephoto lens.”
Of course the media will argue that they have not had the freedom to deploy drones as they want to, and so have not demonstrated to our amazed eyes all that is possible. True, but that is the same thing as asking us to believe that drones will suddenly make their programming choices more tasteful and meaningful than we are accustomed to seeing. It’s not that I don’t believe them, it’s that I don’t believe they can resist their own Darwinian imperative. The promise is that we will soon be able to thrill to an aerial view of a police pursuit down an alley cutting “back to you Leslie” as the beating gets underway.
The  larger issue is not the media’s right to inflame opinion in order to sell papers and drive ratings (thank you for the Drumpf,) but how we as a society manage the seemingly inherent conflicts of principles and innovation; stirred up by those who directly profit from the controversy. Because if there is one thing that I am certain of, it is that there another ‘next great thing’ right around the corner… We have already learned that the decisions we make today directly affect how we will make
decisions tomorrow.

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