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Freedom of expression, privacy, remix + autoblur - the 2nd Open Video Conference

It's taken me a while to gather my thoughts about the Second Open Video Conference which took place at the start of October in New York. It featured a vast mix of people and organisations interested in the future of video online - from tech and web shapers to creatives and lawmakers - there's not many places where you can end up round the table with implementers from the W3C, the Firefox and Safari developer teams, the inventor of VLC and someone whose mashup has just been retweeted by John Cussack and got half a million views.

Some background

Williamsburg Bridge CC by Nic WistreichThe first event in June 2009, came against the backdrop of the mass Iranian 'green wave' uprising. As the conference continued we could see first hand the importance of a free, open and impartial media space, as well as the importance of social media tools such as Twitter to share information and connect people. There was also buzz around the hopes for a royalty free video codec, Ogg Theora (just as web image formats jpg, png and gif are royalty free), while filesharing seemed certain to have changed the media landscape forever with filmmakers like Nina Paley explaining how she was staying afloat with a near-copyright-free model for her film Sita Sings the Blues.

15 months later and there's been some troubling moves. Britain has adopted the Digital Economy Act, France is already implementing HADOPI - both are 'three strikes and you're out' internet laws that will push the serious pirates into hidden and untracable proxy networks, while penalising with digital excommunication the casual or accidental downloader (or indeed anyone who shares a wifi connection with them), alienating and disconnecting the very audience indie filmmakers are desperate to engage with. The way such massive legislation was pushed through Parliament angered many of the copyright industry's former supporters and has been met with widespread condemnation through the tech, web and telecoms sector. While the LibDems said they would rescind the bill, it's been added to the many election pledges they've backtracked on. Google, meanwhile, appear to have also broken their word over network neutrality, at least on mobiles - breaking the internet's golden rule of 'all data is equal' by saying some data is more equal than others - if you're rich enough. Meanwhile the ACSLaw debacle shone some light on dirty world of copyright blackmailing, a 21st century 'get rich' scheme where consumers get bullied and frightened into paying a fine for an infringement that may or may not have happened. 

But it's not all bad - Google has also released the WebM video codec royalty free and claim that they will be better placed than Xiph, who develop Ogg, to defend patent claims - while Ogg still has widespread use through Firefox. Platforms such as Vodo are opening more of the film community's eyes to the benefits of P2P, while the P2PNext project has finally blossomed with a torrent streaming protocol (aka bandwidth-free streaming) implemented in the last few weeks with Wikimedia and a Firefox plugin. HTML5 is a browser reality and the next generation Javascript and WebGL languages are offering some truly dazzling glimpses of the future of video online (people are even saying nice things about IE9), while the Universal Subtitles project (and sister Drumbeats lab newling Popcorn.js) offer practical solutions for attaching meaningful metadata to online video, right now.

Freedom of expression vs privacy

Williamsburg BridgeIf there was one news story that - like Iran last time - backdropped the discussions at the conference, for me it was the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers university whose roommate had filmed him having sex on a webcam and uploaded it to the internet. As a generation we're only just beginning to understand what having our data carved in stone into the Internet for the rest of human history really means, and our free and open video space comes with huge privacy issues.

So for a major theme running throughout the conference, for me it was the tension between freedom of expression and privacy in the digital age. Take Arin Crumley, for instance, who's spent the last three years filming a docu-drama at Burning Man, his follow up feature to Four Eyed Monsters which he plans again to offer for free download. The preview trailer he showed at the Future of Exhibition panel we were both on looked incredible - visually stunning and unique. Anyway, arriving at Burning Man this year, with a changed production team and evolved project description, he was told that he couldn't film any more, and that he couldn't release his film without being sued. Burning Man - bastion of free spirited, well managed anarchy - was challenged about this new tough 'no photos, no cameras' policy by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organisation who curiously had the current head of Burning Man as their first legal counsel. It was an interesting debate with no simple answers, and when challenged by Arin, Burning Man's legal counsel Lightning Clearwater III (seriously) floundered and talked about BM videos being used in porn, a troll-like flame which Arin challenged him on as being irrelevant to his situation, ultimately to applause from the audience.

Interestingly although it was easy to support the freedom of expression argument within the limits of respect (don't film someone who doesn't want to be filmed) - the conference party that night with Eclectic Method sought to break the record for the most videos uploaded at a party, and as a result everything was being filmed. As the other panelists Jon Reiss and Eric Dunlap and myself remarked - what better way to discourage people from dancing and relaxing than having a hundred cameras threatening to render you to the internet for eternity! So even in the first night party, the issue of privacy vs freedom was present and intentionally or not the ever present Flip Cams gave a good moment for reflection - just as the constantly appearing logo for throughout the VJ sets was an implicit suggestion - to me at least - that ad supported was not the most elegant solution for funding content.

During the hack day on the Sunday after the conference, the talented folks from Witness - who use video to open the world's eyes to human rights abuses - created and demo'd a facial recognition and obfuscation filter, nicknamed Auto Blur the News. In short it's a prototype Android phone ap that can take the camera input and apply a blurred box around the head of someone in the shot. The potential is great, especially in realtime news situations, with phones now capable to IP stream video live from camera to website. Imagine someone at a demonstration filming an act of brutality, unable to get permission from the other protesters - being on video could endanger them or their family. An automated blur filter would offer protection, tho at present the technology is far from dependable. Perhaps the developers could work with the UnLogo logo blocking filter for video which launched around the same time and is also open source (and currently on a Kickstarter campaign).

Remix comes of age, at last

Brooklyn Bridge from Williamsburg Bridge

Another great things that happened at the conference was the world premiere, and subsequent explosion, of Jonathan McIntosh's Right Wing Radio Duck (Glenn Beck meets Donald Duck). Created over three months, McIntosh pulled together countless Donald Duck cartoons and far right ramblings from ShockJockFox Glenn Beck. So Friday, Jonathan (creator of the brilliant Buffy vs Edward Twilight shit-rip) was still putting the finishing touches to the film. Saturday midday he showed it at the conference, wherupon it got its Twitter explosion. By the end of the day it had been tweeted by Roger Ebert and John Cusack, and by the end of the weekend a quarter of million people had seen it. Over the following week, Glenn Beck responded, complementing it on being the best made propaganda he'd ever seen, suggesting McIntosh must be funded by the Democrats. Beck's response was then turned into a Mickey Mouse cartoon by YouTube user iKat381, and by the time the news channels picked it up, they were declaring this the moment that someone could make a big widely seen political statement through the web without any funding. It was also, perhaps, the first time many in the mainstream media saw the power of remix and mashup as an art-form and message-maker in its own right.

Another panel presented by Jonathan, with help from wunderblogger Anita Sarkeesian, aka Feminist Frequency, was Remixing Gendered Advertisements: A New Kind of Media Literacy Education. Here he talked about giving kids the tools to remix toy adverts to help understand the gender stereotypes enforced thru them. The more 'Boys are competitive aggressive battlers and Girls are nurturing fashion lovers' videos we saw the more I got quite upset. I'm not a fan of the myths perpetuated by advertising to begin with, proud to have written for Adbusters, but the blatant sexism and psychological manipulation targeted at children left quite a few of us in the audience in stunned silence. If our children were to follow the messages presented in advertisement alone (as opposed to, say, Sesame Street or Pixar) then there would really be no hope. The idea took hold and on the hack day one of the Kaltura developers created a tool to let people remix toy adverts in realtime, putting the tools in the hands of anyone.

But what about the art (and its sustainability)?

A big wow quote from the conference for me was from Saskia Wilson Brown, talking about the Curatorial Paradox - people benefit from curation (galleries, festivals, TV schedules), but nobody wants to deal with exclusionary practices online. It is another version of the old 'wisdom of crowds' argument, but at a time where BoingBoing goes from strength to strength and Digg is losing viewers, the importance of curators should perhaps be reassessed. Indeed what is a popular tweeter but a curator? For me, the smart money in the future is on the expert curators who will have sufficient followers and influence to be able to make (or break) the career of an independent creative, in turn helping raise money by promoting everything from handmade packaging to T-shirts and events.



Creatively there was much to be excited by. The next period of innovation will doubtless be around all the interactive possibilities of HTML5 video, with the (very fruitful) Hack Day delivering a live chromakey of the recent OK Go dogs video, taking in the live output from a webpage (in this case a Google search) and rendering it behind the band. The creative potential of integrating live web pages inside video (and to then apply SVG filters or JS transformations) is huge - and could be the gameshifter for interactive video (not to mention documentaries with the latest data or news appearing within them, or a TV set in a film playing that morning's news, or a horror movie that incorporate's the viewer's photo or name).

Needless to say it was an incredible three days, while the two days before at the Universal Subtitles Summit were so packed they deserve a separate post that I hope I will get round to writing. Our panel went really well (perhaps another post there as well!) with the room was so crowded people couldn't all fit in, and we couldn't answer everyone's questions in the time - so thank you to the conference and their incredible team for making it happen. And to the wonderful people I met there, who've fired me with enough inspiration to keep me going til next year, I hope to see you before then.

Well I could say much more, but for the time being here's Right Wing Radio Duck.

NB - I took the photos on Williamsburg bridge - feel free to reuse them under CC.

Stylistic edits on 18 October 2010.