Eastern great egret at the Cooks River

Eastern great egret at the Cooks River

The community asked for it, but repeatedly Marrickville Councillors voted not to have live video streaming of Council Meetings.

Much to my delight I read a press release from the Inner West Council of 6th October 2016 saying, “live streaming of Inner Council meetings via YouTube will start this year in a move to make it easier for many more in the community to follow meetings and hear about issues that interest them.”  Yes!

The first live streaming is expected to start with the December Ordinary Meeting.  It will be real time & also accessible later.

However, the Council did not say for how long the video of the council meeting will be accessible on YouTube.  Will it be removed after 30-days or another period of time?  I hope not.

Council should allow the videos to remain on YouTube forever.  This will be especially good resource for researchers & anyone with an avid interest in Council.  Besides, YouTube is a free service, so leaving the videos up will not cost Council anything, yet will serve greater benefits by leaving them available.

In the press release the Administrator Mr Richard Pearson said, “For the many in our community that can’t attend meetings due to issues of time or accessibility, live streaming is a practical step that will allow anyone anywhere to watch and listen to the meeting in real time. …. Increasing & expanding public access through streaming also helps us to meet open government obligations of transparency and accountability.”

I think this is fantastic & about time.  Although we do not have Councillors at the moment & won’t until after the 2017 elections, is it important that the community is able to see how our future Councillors will perform in council meetings.  It can be an eye-opener to say the least.

Live video streaming will have the added benefit of stopping any bullying behavior & long-winded diatribes that add little to the issue.  Having gone through a period of around 2.5 years where we attended council meetings most weeks, I can say with all honesty that these meetings can be very interesting.   It is also important to see how Council works under an Administrator.

I think live streaming will be embraced by the community, though it may be slow to take off.  Or maybe not.  Regardless of view numbers, I think live streaming should continue as a norm because it allows true equal access to the community.

Tuesday evenings is not a good time for most families to attend council meetings.  People with health issues also find it difficult.  By having live streaming available for the community to watch/listen when they have the time offers excellent transparency to the operations of council & the decisions of the Administraor & of the future Councillors.  I also think the community will become more engaged when they learn of the issues dealt with by Council.

I have only two concerns.  The first is how long the videos will remain accessible to the community on YouTube.  The second concerns privacy.

The Administrator Mr Richard Pearson said, “all speakers addressing Council will be advised that the meeting will be broadcast before the start of each meeting.”   The press release does not address privacy more than this statement.

The Council’s published statement does not leave room for informed consent. It is a dictatorial notice that if you speak, your image will be shared with the whole world whether you like it or not.   No room for exceptions – at least in the press release.

I think it is important for speakers from the community to be able to elect not to be filmed.  It is easy to not have the camera pointing towards them while they address the Councillors or if multiple cameras are used, have the camera that films the community speaker turned off for the 3-6 minutes that they are given to address Council.  Not having vision of the person speaking will not detract from the transparency principle, as their voice & therefore their message, will be recorded.  The same goes for a speaker’s address.

All the time we attended meetings at the Council, there was not requirement for a speaker to specifically state their home address. There was and still is good reason for that.  It adds nothing to the issue discussed or the transparency of the decision making process if the whole world knows exactly where a speaker lives.  It is the message that matters.

The same applies to a speaker’s image, unless the speaker freely consents to their image being broadcast around the world and maybe copied by others later.

It is the same as the issue of consenting to having a video or photos taken of you to be posted onto the internet to go who knows where if you attend library events.

Part of Council’s statement for attending library events is as follows, “….you should be aware that any information published on the internet is accessible to millions of users from all over the world, that it will be indexed by search engines and that it may be copied and used by any web user.”  See – http://bit.ly/2dCOKHd

YouTube content poses exactly the same issues.  It is very easy to take a screenshot from a video posted on the internet. 

An even greater threat is the easy way in which cheap technology these days does facial recognition matching. Anyone with a couple of hundred spare dollars and/or companies anywhere with an interest to collate a “digital dossier” on you can use your image from council’s meetings as part of stitching together your whole life story. Maybe some people do not mind.  But maybe some do.

It may be that most people coming to address Council will not care about being videoed, but there will be some, myself included, who will not want their image on the internet.  The community should have the right to have the privacy of their image respected.

I have spoken at Council Meetings about issues concerning the urban forest on a number of occasions, but I will never address the Councillors again if I have to be filmed.   Unfortunately, a lack of speakers is often interpreted as a lack of community interest in the issue, which is far from reality as far as I am concerned.

If filming a citizen’s face is mandatory, then Council effectively prevents some members of the community from exercising their democratic rights whilst retaining ownership of their own image.  This is not equal access to me.    Council locks us out without knowing the reasons why we choose not to have our image posted on the internet.  Neither should they know.  This is the private right of all citizens & should not require explanation.

With video streaming, the speakers’ image will be exposed to the world with the risk of being misappropriated by an uncontrollable number of individuals & more importantly, for an unpredictable range of purposes not connected with the issue of the council meeting.

There are valid & important reasons to have exceptions to filming, as there are many groups of people who may not wish to have their image shared with the world or copied from screens.  Victims of domestic violence have very good reasons why they would not want anyone to see their image connected with a particular location.  It simply may lead to perpetrators locating them and start harassing them again.  It is the same with Silent Voters.  Young people are always at a special risk.  Then there are the people who may wish to speak about a contentious issue, especially about development applications.  It is not necessary for their image to be displayed & adds to any risk towards them.  This issue was clearly identified by the City of Sydney, whose discussion of live steaming included:

“STREAMING OF COUNCIL AND COMMITTEE MEETINGS.  Privacy & legal risks:  A key risk is disclosure of personal information without consent in breach of the Privacy & Personal Information Protection Act 1198.  Personal information is often disclosed during the course of discussions or submissions at Committee meetings (especially during the Planning and Development Committee).  The city would need to either not record input from members of the public or ensure that public consent to broadcasting was obtained from attendees (including parental consent for minors).”  From Corporate, Finance, Properties and Tenders Committee 8th September 2014.

There is also no mention in the press release whether the people sitting in the Gallery will be filmed either.  

Remember, anyone who attends a Council Meeting is prohibited from taking photos, recording or filming the council meeting.  If you want to do any of that you are at the absolutely discretionary whim of Council to give you permission, plus you have to give your details & provide reasons why you want to take photos, record or video proceedings.   Whether or not you get permission is debated & voted upon by the Councillors at the start of the meeting & they can refuse to allow this.

While I think it is excellent that the Inner West Council is going to get with the times & live stream council meetings, the public announcement lacks any proper analysis of privacy risks.  If privacy risks were considered by Council, as opposed to being ignored, then it was essential and in keeping with the open government and transparency principle that the announcement espouses to have also released any report that Council commissioned on privacy risks from live streaming. If the community deserve transparency as Council suggests, they deserve it before any new regime that affects one of their most fundamental rights kicks off.