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August 14 2012

15:38

August 01 2012

20:16

Why the Olympics, NBC Should Embrace Free Speech in Wake of Guy Adams Affair

Editor's Note: The following is an opinion piece from MediaShift contributor Trevor Timm.

Early Tuesday, Twitter finally apologized to journalist Guy Adams -- Los Angeles bureau chief for the Independent and an outspoken critic of NBC's coverage of the Olympics -- for suspending his account under flimsy and suspicious circumstances.

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Adams may be free to tweet again, but this is neither the first nor will it be the last incident involving the Olympics and censorship; it's merely the most high profile. And Twitter isn't the worst offender, either.

Twitter's (small) role in free speech at the Olympics

Twitter -- the self-proclaimed "free speech wing of the free speech party" -- admitted Tuesday morning that "we did mess up" when the "team working closely" with NBC at Twitter (thanks to a new partnership), proactively told NBC about Adams' tweet telling fans upset at NBC's Olympics coverage to send an email to NBC executive Gary Zenkel. Twitter owned up to violating its own policy of not actively policing content, but not that the tweet never broke any rules in the first place.

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Twitter said at the time (and still does) that Adams violated its policy of posting personal, non-public email addresses. In this case, the email address was neither. Zenkel's corporate address was posted, not his personal. But most importantly, Twitter's policy reads, "If information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter, it is not a violation of this policy." Zenkel's email address has been posted on this site for more than a year.

The original move to censor has been seen by some as a reason to move away from the social network, but perhaps Twitter, more than most Internet companies at least, deserves the benefit of the doubt. It has a history of standing up for both its users and the First Amendment, challenging government requests for user info from three WikiLeaks volunteers and in a high-profile Occupy Wall Street protest case.

Its transparency report shows it took down exactly zero posts in response to government requests last year. Still, if the company is going to hold itself up as being the "free speech wing of the free speech party," censorship shouldn't be any more of an option for its business partners than with anyone else.


Guy Adams in a live video chat Tuesday with journalists Jeff Jarvis and Matthew Keys.

Censorship at the hands of NBC, IOC

At least with Twitter, this is an isolated case, and it's contrite in its actions. NBC, and the Olympic Committee at large, have insisted on heavy-handed controls on information, and in the case of the Olympics Committee, even outright censorship.

In the Internet age, they will learn the hard way that censorship rarely works -- and more often, it completely backfires. Instead of shutting down Adams' public forum, NBC effectively gave its No. 1 critic the ultimate Follow Friday. Less than 24 hours after his account was reinstated, his follower count more than quadrupled from just over 4,000 to almost 18,000, and at the time of the publication of this article, it's almost certainly larger. NBC has stated its only real worry was its executive's email address, yet the address has now been published by countless blogs and some of the nation's leading newspapers. No doubt, hundreds of thousands of more people saw the address than if NBC had ignored the original tweet.

The Olympics Committee, for its part, has been even worse, going to great lengths to censor athletes, protesters, and ordinary Londoners, and at times, they've sounded like the worst autocratic regimes.

The most absurd restriction can be found on the official Olympics home page, in a completely unenforceable section of its terms of use, saying Internet users can't even link to their site unless they agree not to portray the Olympics "in a false, misleading, derogatory or otherwise objectionable manner." In other words, as the Index on Censorship said, "You're only allowed [to] link to the official site of the Olympics if you're going to say nice things about the Olympics."

The IOC has also threatened to sue the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) after it refused to censor every Olympics-related domain name that IOC asked it to. Thankfully, ICANN has not budged.

While those policies are not enforced, speech prohibitions for athletes are in full effect thanks to a draconian social media policy. If you're an athlete and want to post to Twitter or Facebook, you must follow a myriad of rules and restrictions set out by the IOC or risk unspecified sanction.

Want to write about your experience? That's fine, but it "must not report on competition or comment on the activities of other participants or accredited persons." And no posting video or audio of anything inside Olympic venues is allowed. And if you tweet about your own sponsorship? That is the ultimate sin on which there is a total ban, as the Olympics will be making billions off of their own sponsorships. Of course, the athletes, who make all of this money possible, are paid nothing by the IOC and often make their living on the individual sponsorships they cannot name.

Spectators have it worse. They're banned from uploading pictures to social media at all. They are also prohibited from creating any sort of private WiFi access points, like tethering your phone or using it as a private WiFi connection.

'Most Stringent' Copyright Law in the World

But the biggest losers are the residents of London, who, thanks to a copyright law passed in 2006 in anticipation of the Olympic games, are all but outlawed from uttering the words "London Olympics" without paying a license fee. As the Guardian reported:

In 2006, accordingly, parliament passed the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act, which, together with the Olympic Symbol (Protection) Act of 1995, offers a special level of protection to the Games and their sponsors over and above that already promised by existing copyright or contract law. A breach of these acts will not only give rise to a civil grievance, but is a criminal offense.

To enforce these laws, the Olympics Committee is replete with its own private army of "brand police," preventing bakers from icing cakes with the Olympics logo on them or florists who put the Olympics rings made of tissue paper outside their storefront. Fans from taking pictures from inside the Olympic village or placing errant stickers on bathroom toilets face a similar fate," according to the Guardian's Esther Addley.

In fact, many legal experts think these are "the most stringent restrictions ever put in place to protect sponsors' brands and broadcasting rights, affecting every athlete, Olympics ticket holder and business in the U.K.," Addley wrote.

While the Games are in London, those in the U.S. are not safe from the IOC's copyright regime. A 30-year-old restaurant from Philadelphia known as "Olympic Gyros" was just forced to change its name or face a lawsuit.

Even Mitt Romney and President Obama are not immune from the IOC's reach. Last week, the IOC sent take-down notices to both major presidential campaigns which ran ads that were "Olympic themed." Both used footage from Romney's time as CEO of the Winter Olympics Organizing Committee for the Salt Lake City Games in Utah in 2002, experience which Romney has touted as proof of his leadership skills. This certainly seems newsworthy, yet the IOC seems intent on sending take-down notices regardless of whether a copyrighted image of theirs is used in accordance with standard fair use principles.

Given the Olympics means billions of dollars for the IOC, the networks covering it and its sponsors, they will all certainly continue to clamp down on information and use whatever leverage they have -- legal or otherwise -- to control its flow. But as the Adams incident shows, censorship will lose more often than not in the digital age, and the IOC would be better to embrace the 21st century than trying to hold onto tactics better suited for the 19th.

Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. Previously, he helped the former general counsel of the New York Times write a book on press freedom and the First Amendment. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic and Al Jazeera.

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13:46

The Quixotic Quest to Avoid Olympic Spoilers on Social Media

Olympic fever hit me young. One of my earliest memories is of a coloring book featuring the raccoon mascot from the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics that my mom gave me when I was three. I colored in the pictures of the raccoons skating and bobsledding while I watched the Olympics on our old boxy television. From then on, wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I always took two weeks out to gorge on the Olympics, as the technology that delivered them to viewers evolved.

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I've passed on my enthusiasm to my kids. When my daughter was two and half, coverage of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was practically the first television I allowed her to watch. One day she saw an elderly neighbor of ours swimming shortened laps in the decidedly not Olympic-sized oval pool at our condo complex. She pointed and said, "A champion!" She pointed out champions everywhere -- joggers slogging down the street, slackers pedaling cruiser bikes, they were all champions.

During the Beijing Olympics, I managed to mostly avoid hearing results of competitions before I was able to watch them on the evening network TV coverage. But there are now more ways than ever to take in Olympic coverage -- network and cable TV, iPad apps, live feeds streaming on the Internet, and the athletes' Twitter and Facebook updates, to name some. The ubiquity of real-time coverage threatens to undermine what I most enjoy about the Olympics: the drama, the thrill of not knowing how the competition is going to turn out. So I will try to digitally sequester myself as much as I can during the London Olympics.

Against the Digital Grain

Why am I trying to go against the modern digital grain? When I was in high school, I almost won a 300-meter hurdles competition. There I was, charging down the track. I could hear my teammates chanting my name and saw no competitors in front of me. I was beginning to taste the thrill of victory that I'd heard so much about during my obsessive Olympics watching. Then I tripped over the second-to-last hurdle and landed flat on my face on the track. I picked myself up in time to collect my customary fourth place.

My loss was not at the level that an Olympian who has trained her whole life experiences when she makes an unfortunate mistake, nor would a win have been as great. But when you're rooting for an athlete, what you're really doing is rooting a little for yourself -- for the little bit of you that you see in every champion. And so, when you can see the win within her reach, and then something goes wrong, your own mishaps make you feel her pain. And you share a little of the athlete's glory when she wins, because you've been through the nerve-wracking experience together.

When, however, you hear through Twitter or a news site that an athlete tripped over a hurdle, and later you watch the race, it feels like all you're watching it for is to see when and how the calamity happened. This rubbernecking feels unwholesome somehow. It's less like the participatory feeling that watching a live sporting event can give and more like the why-have-I-sunk-this-low self-loathing that watching reality TV provides.

I have a few advantages in my quest to digitally sequester myself, chiefly that I am somewhat behind the rest of the country on my gadget acquisition. This is in part because I try to limit my online time, but mostly because on my meager writer earnings, I can't afford all those pesky monthly fees. So I don't have cable or satellite TV, and I still rock a flip phone without a text or Internet plan like it's 2005. I will try not to visit Facebook much during these two weeks. However, I can't give up Twitter. It's just too fun.

A Two-Week Olympic Sequestration

During the first few days of Olympic coverage, my quest to digitally sequester myself has yielded mixed results. As I watched the Opening Ceremonies, I checked out Twitter, figuring that since this wasn't a competition, there was nothing really to spoil. I enjoy visiting Twitter during events that millions of people are watching together -- it's like throwing a party without having to cook and clean. But apparently the majority of the people I follow live farther East than I do, because I was reading lots of tweets about the parachuting Queen and Mary Poppins taking on Voldemort hours before I could see this in Colorado.

So I shut off my computer and enjoyed watching Kenneth Branagh, dressed kind of like Abe Lincoln, wandering around on that Hobbity hill in the pastoral portion of the Opening Ceremonies. If I'd had Wikipedia fired up, I could have learned that the top hat costume was meant to portray not Lincoln, but Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a British engineer whose "designs revolutionized public transport and modern engineering."

But I didn't need Wikipedia to tell me that Branagh is a great actor. His expression of joy and awe at the sight of the illuminated Olympic rings rising above looked so much more intelligent and convincing than the slack-mouthed stupefaction of the volunteers nearby him, who were perhaps feeling the same awe but weren't trained to express it through their faces. Branagh's eyeballs tracked side to side as he gazed at the spectacle, the way actors' eyes do when they give each other meaningful looks. Give that guy an Oscar.

Nor did I need Wikipedia to tell me who Tim Berners-Lee was when he appeared in the modern section of the ceremony. I had my software engineer husband to tell me that he established the first web server, and that in the opening ceremony he was sitting at a NeXT workstation, the computer he used in his pioneering work on the World Wide Web. My husband further informed me that Steve Jobs founded NeXT in 1985, the year he was fired from Apple. See! In the absence of the Internet, family members can also be fonts of information. However, my husband said, "I didn't know Tim Berners-Lee was British. I thought he was Swiss." So the same rule applies for information derived from Wikipedia and family members: trust, but verify.

Family Members Ruin It

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On Saturday, the first day of real competition, I fared less well on my digital seclusion. I avoided checking the Internet or listening to the radio, but at the birthday party for my dad that day, most of my family was armed with smartphones and iPads. My brother and my husband started a discussion that made it clear to me that Michael Phelps had not won the gold in the 400-meter IM. "Stop!" I said. "No more!" I ran away from them. So I was able to at least preserve the mystery of who had won the race until I watched it a few hours later and saw Ryan Lochte take the gold.

It will be hard for me to find time during weekdays to sit down and watch live Olympic coverage on the Internet, so as the London Olympics unfolds, I will continue my quest to maintain my ignorance until the moment when network TV chooses to enlighten me. I know, it's retrograde, but it's the best strategy I can come up with to maintain that Olympic magic that I first experienced as a kid.

However, I don't think I will be able to resist sneaking away from my weekday duties to watch a Colorado girl, Missy Franklin, in her swimming finals. She goes to the same high school that my little brother attended, which for some reason makes me feel like I have a stake in her wins. She's already won her first gold medal and is expected to contend for six medals.

She's taken it as her mission to bring some joy back to Colorado. At a news conference last week she said, "The only thing I can do is go to the Olympics and hopefully make Colorado proud and find a little bit of light there now." She tweets @FranklinMissy, and you can bet your gold medal I'll be following her.

Jenny Shank's first novel, "The Ringer," is a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. Her satire appears in the new "McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals."

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

September 19 2011

10:53

Help Get Olympic Data off the Start Line

As part of Media2012 we’ll be running (no pun intended) a Hacks and Hackers Data Journalism workshop.

It’s part of the Abandon Normal Devices Festival. It’ll be on 2nd October from 11:00-17:00 at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) Medialab, 88 Wood Street, Liverpool, L1 4DQ.

So if you’re interested in sports data and want to see times, points and medal tables get off the line then come on down.

To book email hello@andfestival.org.uk

Most importantly, beer and pizza will be provided!

So watch out London 2012, you’re being ScraperWikied!


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