Sixth Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

The Ethics of Video Streaming Apps

  • AuthorMary T McCarthy
  • Published Thursday, June 25th, 2015
  • Comments0

Syncing video files with iTunes can be difficult and inconvenient for consumers. To respond to the need, several apps have come to the forefront for effective video streaming. Of course, Netflix and Hulu Plus are leaders in the market, and UStream is one of the biggest live-streaming apps. Air PlayIt, AirVideo and Crackle are a few options that don’t require syncing, and video can be played offline. Plex, Slingbox, VLC Streamer and SnagFilms are additional options previously named by Mashable as top choices for watching video, with varying levels of success.

Easy Access

According to DaCast, a web based video streaming platform, by the end of 2015, there will be 2 billion smartphone users worldwide. In other words, a quarter of the entire human population on earth will have a way to be internet-connected at any time from anywhere. In 2014, a shocking 53 percent of all video was viewed on mobile devices and that number is expected to grow to 69 percent by 2018.

DaCast Tech writer Phillene Managuelod feels video streaming is becoming more mainstream. “Smartphones have also become mini-TVs with larger and more high-definition screens,” she says Phillene Manageulod at DaCast.com. “People will be on the train watching their TV shows or they will be following the live stream of the Giants vs. Dodgers. People are now more keen to watch what they want when they want it. It’s the same thing for broadcasters – they can now broadcast video content from wherever they are through their smartphones.”

Piracy and Privacy

Although many services, like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video are paid with monthly fees, the majority of streamed video is free. Often referred to as “shareware,” it can be difficult for viewers to even know if they are breaking a law when watching a movie or a sports event. With all the available accessibility for people to stream video on demand, what are the implications for digital ethics?

Piracy has become a major issue. Recently, Twitter’s streaming app Periscope enabled users to stream a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao without paying the $100-per-view fee. HBO and Showtime had asked Periscope, Meerkat and other live-streaming apps to disable viewing during the fight, but it’s hard to prevent Periscope users who have paid for the fight from streaming it to their followers. Major sports leagues are trying to tackle the concept of how to handle the fact that thousands of stadium visitors can broadcast games live from their phones. Clearly, it would be nearly impossible for the FBI to pursue or prosecute the millions of illegal views of the fight or other protected live content.

Privacy issues in live streaming are a concern of many tech users. While the FBI has the ability to use technology to flush out video streaming habits of law-breakers, it’s generally known to do so with child porn violators. According to Wired, the FBI has been quietly experimenting for several years with “drive-by hacks” of the powerful Tor anonymity system (free software used to redirect Internet traffic to conceal a user’s identity) to solve one of law enforcement’s most prevalent Internet problems: identification and prosecution of criminal websites.

The FBI’s use of anonymity software to hack websites creates controversy because of the potential for innocent parties to wind up infected with government malware due to an inadvertent website visit. American Civil Liberties Union technologist Chris Soghoian, an expert on law enforcement’s use of hacking tools, told Wired that there should have been congressional hearings on the government’s policy of monitoring streaming: “If Congress decides this is a technique that’s perfectly appropriate, maybe that’s OK. But let’s have an informed debate about it.”

Blurred Lines of the Law

What’s legal and not legal about streaming? The lines can be blurry.

Downloads of even partial files — known as “pseudo-streaming” — are also copies of copyrighted material, which is illegal. Streaming content as a “public performance” (viewed by a significant number of people besides family and friends) is also a copyright violation.

Watching content like TV shows, movies and sporting events is commonly done regardless of the legality. Sites that host videos generally create layers of links to hide their identities from the FBI. These secondary online streaming sites often disguise themselves as search engines for content because liability requires the “inducement rule” in order for them to be accused of copyright infringement. Inducement rule refers to a test created in a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that states a company or website can only be held accountable for distributing unlicensed content if it clearly encourages users to infringe a copyright.

Business Insider recently explored the issue of live broadcasting video to Meerkat or Periscope, noting:

“Live-streaming video has suddenly gotten easier than ever before—and as is the case every time social media takes a leap forward, a host of practical and ethical questions about using technology during times of tragedy have presented themselves.”

Is It Wrong to Broadcast Tragedy?

So what about the ethics of broadcasting video? If everyone with a smartphone can broadcast live to millions of viewers, how does that change journalism and privacy issues? Meerkat and Periscope users broadcasted a partial building collapse in New York that caused the deaths of three people recently. This instant-streaming technology essentially makes it possible for people to film the deaths of other people, broadcast them live, and potentially have family members learn of the death of their loved one on Twitter.

At Fast Company, associate news editor Rose Pastore participated in watching and streaming the recent New York building collapse in which 19 people were injured. Although she reported that “some people on Twitter took issue with the use of live-streaming apps during the event, arguing that it was distasteful or unethical to do so when people’s lives were still in danger,” she also noted, “it is human nature to want to share these kinds of stories…it is not a bad thing that people are interested in what is happening to strangers across the world.”

Several news outlets, including CNN, ran live streaming coverage of the recent tragic earthquakes in Nepal. But what if live-streaming video apps had been available on 9/11? News coverage depicting people jumping from the World Trade Center buildings was controversial enough. Video replays of the tragic images haunt us year after year on the anniversary of America’s darkest day. Imagine if hundreds of live feeds of burning and collapsing buildings and of catastrophic human loss had also been running live on social media.

Who’s Tuning In?

Periscope and Meerkat are only a few months old. In the large scheme of things, they don’t have that many users yet. (Daily Dot snarks: “There are games you’ve never heard of, services you’ve never used, and apps dedicated to nothing but producing fart noises that have more downloads and users than Meerkat and Periscope do.”)

Daily Dot asks:

“These apps feel like big things, like they matter. And there’s no question that Meerkat and Periscope will serve important purposes going forward. Even though live streaming isn’t new, it’s never been this easy. But does anyone outside of the obsessive tech community truly even care?”

However, the implications of streaming live video moving forward are interesting at a minimum, particularly in regards to ethics. With recent police brutality incidents in the headlines and the fact that the average American is caught on camera 75 times a day, there’s no doubt our society is moving toward an Orwellian, “Truman Show”-esque world. A world, in which people both expect to appear on camera, and in many cases, be the ones holding the cameras.

Mary McCarthy is Senior Editor of SpliceToday.com and author of The Scarlet Letter Society.

Leave a Reply