FAA Enforcement and YouTube

You may want to think twice before uploading a video.

Invariably whenever somebody posts a fun flying video online, the Internet “sheriffs” come out in droves to inform the original poster of just how many Federal Aviation Regulations he or she has broken.

Of course, the only thing that really matters is what the FAA has to say about your video. And a new national policy spells out what actions FAA safety inspectors can — and cannot — take if they see something in a video they don’t like.

First, FAA inspectors are being reminded they have “no authority to direct or suggest” that a flying video you posted on the Internet be removed, according to the new policy. It’s your First Amendment right to upload any video you want. Safety inspectors are also being reminded by top agency brass that a video alone is “ordinarily not sufficient evidence” to determine whether any FARs have been broken. A video purporting to show something legally questionable must also be “authenticated” by the FAA inspector before any enforcement action is taken.

The FAA crafted the policy after one of its safety inspectors sent a threatening letter to the owner of a remote-control quadracopter who filmed beachgoers from on high in Florida a few months back. There was nothing particularly dangerous about the flight or the filming, but because the UAV owner posted the video to YouTube, and because YouTube is a for-profit website that shows ads and gives uploaders a few pennies or dollars for their trouble, the flight had crossed the line into a “commercial operation,” this inspector warned.

Flying asked the FAA for clarification on this point last month. We were told the agency was “looking into it” and never heard another word. The new policy letter, issued on April 8, appears to address this issue by telling safety inspectors in essence to stick to the script when sending out “informational letters” to UAV operators and pilots informing them they may be in violation of the FARs based on a video.

The takeaway is that the burden of proof on FAA inspectors to show you did something unsafe or illegal in an online video is now much higher. However, if you know you busted an FAR on a flight you filmed, you may want to think long and hard before uploading the video proof to YouTube.

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