Beneath my first-floor apartment window in Manhattan, I witness a man trying to force a woman to get into a parked car. He orders her to drive. She resists hard while repeating "NO," and threatens to call the police. He's belligerent.
So, I call 911. This is what good citizens do, right?
Moments later, I receive an alert message from Citizen, a smartphone application that notifies me when a 911 call has been reported near my location. Citizen registers that I am "very close" to the scene of a 911 call about a woman being harassed by a man. Citizen suggests that if I can do it safely, I should press the application's video record/stream button to capture the incident.
Really? I should do that?
Peering through the window blind, I watch as the tension escalates. With one hand, he's holding her slender wrists. With the other hand, he pulls something from his pocket. They struggle. While I could raise the window blind to livestream the scuffle, I would also be within easy striking distance. Is the object they're wrestling for the car keys or is it a gun?
He is ordering her to "get in the car and drive." She responds "NO." Then, the struggle stops. She acquiesces and slides behind the steering wheel. He gets in the passenger seat. She pulls the car away from the curb. From my window, I see the car at the stoplight. She makes a left turn.
Since the NYPD are on the way, I go out to the street in order to flag them down. They arrive. I give a description. They take off in pursuit of the car.
For all I know, their altercation illustrates this woman's ordinary, daily life with an abusive jerk.
Several hours before this incident, I learned about Citizen from the App Wrap news segment on NY 1 News. My immediate reaction: that's a good idea. I want to know about police activity near me. With a swipe and click, I download the application with the full knowledge that in order to use it, I'm allowing Citizen access to my phone's location. My consent feels like a small price to pay for what I hope is a proactive step toward personal safety.
But Here's the Catch
Since that day, Citizen continues to send emails coaching me how to record/stream 911 scenes. Why is this so important to them? I wonder. So, I read their TERMS OF SERVICE. If you try this application, I encourage you to do the same in order to judge for yourself, especially Paragraph 5: Content Rights.
Now, I would show you the screenshots of the exact language, but Citizen's terms prohibit the use of screenshots without their express permission. So as someone who has negotiated content licenses, I shall summarize my understanding of Paragraph 5 in one sentence.
When you record/livestream activity using the Citizen application, you grant Citizen the exclusive license to repackage, distribute and monetize your content--without giving you a second thought--in perpetuity.
This is a royalty-free deal. Upon receiving a Citizen notification about a reported 911 emergency near you, you have the option to voluntarily assume all responsibility for your personal safety as you record/stream the scene. Simply, you volunteer to be a content mule. Citizen's emails to me are cheery and instructive for one reason. They are in the news aggregation business, even though they frame it as community awareness.
Transparency: The Word That Rationalizes Everything
Using the Citizen smartphone app is analogous to grandpa using his citizen band radio to monitor police calls from his basement.
But if grandpa responds to a 911 call by going to the scene, where he snaps a news-worthy photograph or records video, grandpa has the right to sell that image or video to the media. Grandpa takes the personal risk and he keeps the money.
Citizen's safety awareness approach implies that the more transparent we are in reporting danger in real-time, the safer our community. They suggest you are doing your community a service by streaming/recording a 911 scene.
And somehow, this "transparency" makes it okay for them to suggest you record/stream a dangerous situation, of which they are absolved of any liability for your safety, and they hold all opportunities to make the money, not you.
This feels to me like the definition of a content mule.
At the very least, I think if Citizen believes in transparency, every email with suggested recording/streaming instructions should also include a notice about the account holder's assignment of content rights.
That would be real transparency.
Community Citizenship in Context
About once a month, the NYPD stations officers in front of retail shops along Columbus Avenue. These officers pass out recruitment brochures about how to become an auxiliary police officer. This is a voluntary program, which involves weeks of training. Before putting on the uniform, the volunteer must pass a physical and written exam. In other words, there is a process for learning personal and public safety procedures in dangerous situations.
The Citizen approach appears to be: release the app and see what happens. See what happens is not a process. Citizen has a news aggregation process in place for building an audience and doing distribution deals. As a business, this is their right. But business processes are quite different from processes for public safety. I am not convinced that Citizen appreciates this distinction.
Further, I leave it to the legal experts to weigh in on the privacy questions. For instance, if I had recorded the man and woman outside my window, what would be my liability if one of them felt their privacy rights had been violated? Would Citizen come to my defense? I think not.
According to NYC.gov, there are more than 11 million calls made to 911 every year. If Citizen's intention is to sell account holder footage to news organizations or movie studios, for example, their investors' bet could pay off nicely. New York City leads the nation in 911 calls annually. Maybe that's why Citizen selected NYC as the first test market.
The Wake-up Call to Re-read Terms of Service
With any shared-platform application, the company is interested in their results, not yours. Since Citizen keeps nudging me that I should learn how to use the recording/streaming function, I'm suspicious. Something does not feel right about this relationship.
Digital power is similar to electricity. When you depend on something that is intangible, you cannot see or feel it, you are at a disadvantage to those who control the power. This is why I've decided to conduct a fresh review of terms of service for all my social accounts (future post).
When the Mule Comes Full Circle
In 1903, Eadweard Muybridge was a photographer, the first to develop photographic sequences of moving objects. This was the cutting-edge technology of his time. It is incredible to view this gif file of mules bucking and kicking. Today, we touch screens, give voice commands, watch and engage with content from a myriad of devices. Each device is synchronized by an invisible force that few outside of the tech industry understand.
How much royalty was paid to Muybridge and to his estate? The answer depends on how savvy Muybridge was about his copyrights and patents. Whom did he trust? Did those in power prove worthy of his trust?
In the early 20th century, mule power built our national infrastructure from New York to California. These beautiful animals are unassuming, hardworking servants. However, when mistreated, mules kick with deadly force.
In the 21st century, technology entrepreneurs and their investors may soon face flying hooves. As account holders begin to question the business models and their role in relation to the revenue, I believe very interesting days are ahead. For instance, unless Citizen chooses to become more transparent with its account holders about its core business function--news aggregation, not public awareness/safety--I suspect account holders, much like Muybridge's Mules, will deliver their kicks in all the right places.