Videoing the public (including at events) – legal & ethical issues

As is often the case these days, laws have not kept up with rapidly evolving technology.

In the case of videoing the public and uploading to social media accounts, generally accepted etiquette hasn’t kept up either.  In most circumstances it seems obvious to ask people close enough to feature in a film if they mind being videoed – but this is rarely done.


In recent years some countries have tightened regulations controlling ‘street photography’. Videoing is another issue altogether.  Most people wouldn’t turn a hair if they just happened to be included in someone’s photograph in a public place.  Over many decades, society has become accustomed to the possibility of appearing in the background of other people’s photographs in public places.  Most people have better things to do than obsess about it.  Visit a popular tourist location in London, Paris, New York or Tokyo and you can guarantee you’ll accidentally feature in the holiday photos taken by hordes of travellers.  Just as they’ll appear in your photos. Like it or not.

But images used to be captured on film, only.  This necessitated spending time and money on developing and printing and photographs ended up in bottom drawers or at best, the family photo album or friend’s slide show night.  The tiny percentage of images that ended up being scrutinised by the public (in newspapers, magazines, books and art exhibitions) were taken by professional photographers. By definition, professionals have defined motives, are aware of issues and have a vested interest in maintaining particular standards and reputation.  Images that ended up in print had to pass the scrutiny of others, including sub-editors and editors.  Pre-internet, amateur images never made it into the public sphere.  Now, anyone with ulterior motives or who is simply unaware of potential problems or issues – because they simply haven’t stopped and thought it through – can make a video and upload it for the world to see, in an instant.

Film photography of two decades ago is a world away from a digital image that can be taken and beamed out for all to see in an instant; and potentially tracked down by facial recognition software, with the subject being completely unaware.  And videos are something else again because they include audio recordings – which can feature conversations intended to be completely private, not beamed around the world for all to hear.

And instant video streaming is yet another thing entirely.  Being videoed and having it uploaded onto YouTube has now been surpassed by apps such as Facebook Live, in which videos are instantly streamed to anyone who tunes in, anywhere in the world.  Without the knowledge of, let alone permission from, the people who may feature in the video. If something unexpected occurs it’s not edited out before being uploaded – because it’s public in milliseconds.

Want to let your head go & have fun dancing with gay abandon while on a night out? It could be beamed out immediately to whoever, wherever.

It makes the furore about CCTV public security cameras, viewed just by a handful of police and security staff – governed by rules and regulations and enforceable codes of conduct – vanish into insignificance.

While waiting for laws and etiquette to catch up, the best motto to stick to is ‘do unto others’. Or if you have a more relaxed attitude than average, treat people as most people in the community would prefer to be treated – with a dose of erring on the side of caution, added.

For me, this means only making public images and videos that portray others in at least a reasonable light, if not better still – very flattering light.  And in situations they’re likely to be pleased to be shown in, rather than the reverse.  Taking care with anyone in the foreground,who is easily recognisable.  And not overtly invading someone’s privacy (in a way that I wouldn’t like my privacy infringed upon).


Even in public places and at public events, people have a right to be treated with respect.

This means photographing and videoing rural events with care.  Facebook Live and other instant online video apps are fantastic for making those who couldn’t attend, feel like they are there.  But thought should be given to the logical list of priorities.  The first obligation event organisers have is to speakers.  Because without quality speakers there would be no event. The next obligation is to the people who’ve made the effort to attend and parted with their hard-earned cash.  These are the people who are also vital because it’s their money that has paid the event expenses.  Event speakers need a sizeable in-person audience to present to. Attendees need a sizeable in-person audience to network with. Neither speakers nor attendees should ever be taken for granted.

In-person events would have vanished if the same results could be achieved by webinars & other online streaming methods; attending in-person is unbeatable. However – if event content is all ‘given away’ to non-attendees via live streaming, the drop in attendee numbers could be the difference between running a viable event – and going broke.

Presumably event managers will soon catch up with the latest technology and start formulating clear video policies for event websites and announcing videoing policies at the commencement of each event.  Along the lines of the excellent social media policies (especially in relation to Twitter) that are currently being developed.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see videoing at most conferences, workshops etc banned; apart from official or pre-approved video makers.

There’s a number of reasons why – but primarily out of respect for the presenters.  Many speak at multiple events and are unlikely to be thrilled about their presentation being furilly filmed and uploaded by random amateurs (however well meaning). Researchers often present detailed information verbally and/or on slide presentations and do not want it spread around amongst potential future audiences or idea thieves.  Some presenters would be very put off public speaking by the thought that they’d be videoed – and put online – especially by amateurs who a) might do a bodgy filming job and b) are unlikely to be proficient with judicious editing, unlike a long-term professional film maker who has a reputation and standards to uphold.

Ultimately if speakers aren’t treated with the utmost respect then they’ll either withhold information and water down the quality of their presentation, or choose to not present at all.  Which is not a good outcome for anyone.


Producing one long live video vs a short summary is basically saying to prospective viewers: my time is more valuable than yours.

From a results & viewer point of view:

  • POOR TECHNICAL QUALITY: Live videos are almost invariably technically poor (badly lit, wobbly, barely-audible sound) and always contain waffle.
  • VIEWING TIME: Everyone is busy.  Research shows we only watch longer videos if they’re exceptionally spectacular (think: moon landings) – or YouTube how-to’s solving an immediate problem we’re tackling.  Almost all other videos should be 30 seconds or less.  Longer just shows disrespect for viewer’s time. Watching live video is like watching a morning breakfast show – you keep hanging around hoping something pithy will come along, next thing you realise you’ve wasted a big chunk of your day for little reward.  It’s like having to eat a box of cornflakes to get rewarded with a single smartie – and is a sure-fire way to ensure few repeat viewers.  The public will become less and less patient. And it pays to bear in mind – someone tuning into a live broadcast may be recorded as a viewer, but they may not have watched anything more than a few seconds. So treat live video viewer stats with a healthy dose of scepticism.  Do you watch hours of live event videos, or know anyone who does?

A video can be recorded on a smartphone, sliced into chunks of pithy information and uploaded onto a social media account within seconds. This way viewers are seeing nearly-live content that is trimmed down to exactly what’s worth them watching and devoid of the worst technical/production blunders. This means:

  • Far more viewers immediately
  • Far more views afterwards (who watches old ‘live’ videos? That would be worse than eating month-old scones.)
  • More viewers watching new videos in future, as they trust that their time won’t be wasted
  • More viewers in rural/remote areas who have download problems

With a few exceptions (eg broadcasting personal events to a network of friends), ‘live’ videos are just another gimmick – but a gimmick that comes with ethical & results downsides that few seem to be discussing.

With increasing demands on our time, content has to get shorter – not longer. Live videos are the opposite of what we need.

(Blog post originally written October 2015; last updated January 2020. And almost no conference organisers have social media and video policies for audience members!)

Other posts in the ‘Social Media for Farmers’ series.