Fighting Ag-Gag Laws With Drones? Journalist Eyes The Skies For Factory-Farm Investigations

Will Potter’s Kickstarter campaign reached a third of its goal in the first 48 hours.

DroneFarm
An environmental journalist wants to use aerial drones to sniff out illegal activity on factory farms. Kickstarter/Will Potter

What if you could capture a drone’s eye view of illegal activity on factory farms? One imaginative journalist thinks you can, and he’s enlisting the help of hundreds of Kickstarter backers to make it happen.

The campaign is called “Drone on the Farm: An Aerial Exposé,” and just a few days after its launch, it’s already taking off (pun intended). Within 48 hours, it attracted about a third of its $30,000 fundraising goal, and at last check it was up to $22,884 from 348 backers.

Will Potter, the Washington-based journalist/activist behind the project, is a vocal critic of “ag-gag” laws, legislation that criminalizes undercover investigations at agricultural facilities, including factory farms. Earlier this year, Idaho became the latest of at least seven states to enact such legislation, which in this case followed a 2012 video investigation by the animal-rights group Mercy for Animals that led to the firing of workers who were captured violently abusing cows.

Potter is among the plaintiffs challenging the Idaho law in federal court. In a phone interview Thursday, he said ag-gag is not just an animal-rights issue; it’s a serious threat to consumer protection that has chilling implications for core First Amendment principles. “These laws are really about keeping consumers in the dark,” Potter told International Business Times. “If you’re a vegetarian or an activist -- that doesn’t matter. This is really about people’s right to make informed choices about their food and what they’re buying.”

Potter said he got the idea to investigate factory farms by way of drone photography after seeing satellite imagery of a factory farm. “I thought, my god, what if we could get closer?” he said. As it turns out, he wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea. In the skies of Australia, in fact, such investigations are already being carried out by the group Animal Liberation. Back in the U.S., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has similar ambitions, if not the technical savvy to pull it off. On its website, the group sells “Air Angel” drones for the purposes of monitoring illegal hunting activity -- a plan that, when first announced, evoked snickers from critics who said the $325 consumer quadcopters lack the capabilities to carry out long-range surveillance.

Potter said what he has in mind is quite different. He’s looking at aerial drones in the $5,000 to $7,000 price range, models that would allow him to monitor farms from a safe distance, without trespassing, while being equipped with cameras powerful enough to capture high-definition images. “The increased range is what’s most important to me,” he added. “I’m not going to be violating the law with this investigation, so I need to be on public property, where I’m stationed, but it has to have a range to cover the scope of the land.”

Supporters of ag-gag laws include -- no surprise -- state agricultural industries, which attempt to win public support through intense lobbying efforts, often characterizing animal-rights groups as terrorists or extremists. In Idaho, for instance, the dairy industry spent $2.5 billion to convince lawmakers that protecting the industry’s good name was in everyone’s best interest. The argument is that animal-rights video exposés are conducted with extreme bias, and therefore cause unfair harm to businesses.

The reality, Potter said, is that Idaho Big Dairy successfully made it illegal to inform consumers about acts of horrific cruelty. “The dairy industry was incredibly open about drafting the legislation in direct response to an investigation that showed workers punching cows in the face,” he said.

Potter’s campaign comes at a time when the privately held Kickstarter Inc., a pioneer in the crowdfunding revolution, is struggling to compete with newer players such as Indiegogo and GoFundMe. Earlier this month, the site loosened its restrictions, opening up its platform to non-creative projects for the first time. And on Wednesday, Kickstarter added two new categories, “crafts” and “journalism.” The site has always allowed journalistic campaigns, but they would be categorized under a different tag, such as publishing.

As of Thursday afternoon, Potter’s drone campaign topped the list of the new category, which features some 996 projects. “We’ve always seen these projects as a vital part of the site, so it was only natural to give them an official home on Kickstarter,” Kickstarter said in its weekly email.

If Potter’s project successfully meets its goal -- and from the looks of things, it will -- he said he will likely carry out investigations in states where ag-gag laws are currently being considered. He plans to publish the results of his investigation in an e-book. “My intention is not to flaunt the law or stir up a legal battle,” he said. “It’s to add to the public discussion as this legislation is being debated.”

Watch the fundraising pitch for “Drone on a Farm” below.

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