Since Rodney King, we've been told that citizens with video cameras will deter excessive force by law enforcement. As video cameras have miniaturized until they're just one app on a smartphone, we're told the same thing, only more emphatically. Patrick highlighted the possibilities here years ago, though sounding a note of caution that a mechanism for reporting what you've taped to a powerful entity is as important as the recording itself.
But you really didn't think that it was going to be that easy, did you?
A certain segment of law enforcement has always viewed the use of force against citizens not as an ugly necessity in extreme circumstances but as a perquisite of the job. Those cops are not going to change their spots just because everyone's got an iPhone. So now we have pushback. Radley Balko documented it at Reason, Carlos Miller documents it tirelessly at Photography Is Not A Crime, and Injustice Everywhere frequently has pertinent stories.
Sometimes the pushback is cloaked in shameless OMG-9/11-CHANGED-EVERYTHING rhetoric, and sometimes it's straight-up thuggery. Cops arrest people for filming police conduct — whether it's out in public or from the photographer's own lawn. Cops profess not to recognize cameras and pretend they are potential weapons, sending the not-too-subtle message that pointing a camera might get your ass shot. When they think they can get away with it, they destroy cameras wholesale. Prosecutors back the cops up: they prosecute citizens for things like "wiretapping" or "disorderly conduct" when they record encounters with cops (even — or perhaps especially — angry and abusive cops), and they abuse governmental power in an effort to keep government-created recordings secret.
So, how is this relevant today? Well, a link on Reddit led me to a disturbing but entirely consistent-with-this trend discovery: Google's Transparency Report, in which Google describes the number and type of take-down demands it receives. Did you think that the New Professionals would be content arresting photographers in the street? Hell, no. If we've gone digital, so have they. And they know how to work the system. Google reports:
We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove YouTube videos of police brutality, which we did not remove. Separately, we received requests from a different local law enforcement agency for removal of videos allegedly defaming law enforcement officials. We did not comply with those requests, which we have categorized in this Report as defamation requests.
Click that link and see the statistics for various six-month periods. Note that Google records not just take-down demands (including categories for executive and police demands premised on "national security" and "criticism," among others), but demands for user identifying information. Police would never abuse the system by demanding the identity of photographers who posted videos documenting their conduct, would they? Heaven forfend.
So: bear in mind, when you consider measures like SOPA, that giving the government increased power over internet posts and increased ability to seek out user information may not just impact talking about music and movies — it might impact our ability to talk about, and document, police misconduct. Think the police would never seek to abuse such power? Then you're a damned fool.
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