YouTube – Blurring the boundaries

Internet giant Google has introduced new face-blurring technology on its video-sharing site YouTube.

But the move is already proving controversial just days after it was announced.

The tool will allow human faces to be blurred automatically, with Google saying the development will protect human rights activists and campaigners in countries like Egypt, Libya and Syria.

But the new feature has already come under fire from those who fear it may encourage gangs to upload violent videos and that it could mean those who take part in criminal acts and upload videos may escape punishment because they will be given anonymity.

Dozens of clips were posted on YouTube – onto which users upload more than 70 hours of footage every minute – during last summer’s riots, which spread across the UK from London.

The most infamous one of those videos showed a group of men robbing a Malaysian student while they were pretending to help him. The incident was filmed via smartphone and submitted to YouTube, helping to convict his attackers earlier this year.

But Google maintains that violent content is banned from the site anyway and will be removed if flagged up to moderators.

It says the purpose of the new technology is to help protesters who may otherwise face violence if their identities are revealed, and to allow parents to upload videos of their children and their friends without broadcasting their faces.

In a blog post announcing the new technology, Google says: “Whether you want to share sensitive protest footage without exposing the faces of the activists involved, or share the winning point in your eight-year-old’s basketball game without broadcasting the children’s faces to the world, our face blurring technology is a first step towards providing visual anonymity for video on YouTube.

“YouTube is proud to be the destination where people worldwide come to share their stories, including activists. Along with efforts like the Human Rights Channel and Citizentube that curate these videos, we hope that the new technologies we’re rolling out will facilitate the sharing of even more stories on our platform.”

More than 100,000 videos were uploaded to YouTube from Egypt in a two-week period at the height of the Middle East uprising last year.

The new tool will ask users who upload a video to YouTube whether they want to apply a Blur All Faces option. If they choose Yes then YouTube will create two versions of the video, one with blurring and one without. Users then decide which one to publish, with the unblurred version being removed permanently from Google’s servers if they choose the blurred option.

Google has previously used similar technology to blur faces and car numberplates captured by its Street View vehicles.

However Google has warned that the code used cannot be guaranteed to work in all cases. “This is emerging technology,” it says on its blog, “which means it sometimes has difficulty detecting faces depending on the angle, lighting, obstructions and video quality.”

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