The Ethics of Broadcast Live Streaming: Balancing the Private Versus the Public

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Live streaming is not a particular new phenomenon. Websites like UStream, Justin.tv and Live Stream have existed for years providing users with the ability to broadcast from the comfort of their laptop and/or desktop computer. However, in March 2015 both Meerkat and Periscope entered the social media application market and changed how mobile users are able to broadcast and stream video, now straight from their smartphones. While Meerkat and Periscope exploded in popularity, so did the number of legal and ethical issues raised.

Legally, the site created basic issues of copyright infringement and financial losses with television networks and video content creators who complained as users live streamed their products. . For example, professional sports and their broadcast partners have mixed feelings about live streaming apps.  Professional baseball is fine with it; hockey is not.  The recent Mayweather/Pacquio fight lost money to live streams from the actual event as well as from streams of the pay-per-view broadcasts. However, these apps also bring up just as many ethical issues.

First, applications such as Meerkat and Periscope allow users to broadcast live video from anywhere at anytime without the permission of those who may be present in the broadcast. This lets users transmit images of other members of the public without their permission and sometimes even without their knowledge. Should users sign agreements and be asked the permission? And is it logistically or even physically possible to get permission to stream a person’s image? Hypothetically, could a live stream broadcaster record and profit off a person’s image without their knowledge and without compensation? And what about the recording and broadcast of minors who are unable to consent without the permission of their parents and/or guardians?

Another ethical issue is that due to the nature of any kind of live content, especially video, it is difficult to have users exercise control over the environment. This makes it difficult for broadcasters to control what their viewers will see. So what happens if inappropriate images and sounds are being broadcast via live streams? Who is responsible for unplanned events that could be viewed as offensive or inappropriate for their viewers? If it’s broadcasters, should or could they be punished? What about the people actually live streaming the content?

Finally, the ethics of privacy and security are important to note. Live streaming lets viewers know where you are… and thus where you are not.  If you’re not at home, potential thieves can take advantage of that knowledge. Periscope especially has the problem of reporting exact locations, which is sometimes very accurate and sometimes within a few blocks.  Offering an option for city in addition to the exact location is an easy fix for those who want to be less exact.

The use of applications such as Meerkat and Periscope, present multiple ethical issues and challenges in the appropriate use of social media. While it is difficult to resolve many of these ethical issues, it is important to not only identify, but also address how to use broadcast live streaming applications in a way so as to minimize the amount of ethical challenges the social media community faces.

Tarah Wilson & Kristian Monroe, Graduate Students 

Master of Arts in Emerging Media

Loyola University Maryland 

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