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August 01 2012


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.

olympics digital 2012 small.jpg

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.


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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December 16 2009


How the Olympics Can Thrive in the Digital Age

I'm honored to share that an essay I wrote was selected by the International Olympic Committee for inclusion in the official book that was distributed at the Olympic Congress held in Copenhagen from October 3 to 5. This was a great opportunity, especially given our work on SochiReporter. Here's an image of the book's cover:


I submitted my essay in March as part of the Virtual Olympic Congress, an open international competition that was announced by the IOC in the early fall of 2007. Here's what the IOC said about the competition:

Via the "Virtual Olympic Congress," a dedicated website, over 1,700 people from 90 countries submitted their thoughts on the five themes of the Congress following the "Call for Contributions" launched two years ago. The website was designed to accept written contributions on the themes of the Congress in the form of a written contribution of 1,000 words or less.

One hundred contributions from the general public were chosen by the Congress Editorial Committee for inclusion in the official Congress book, and 20 of those contributors were invited to Copenhagen to attend the Congress. Ten men and ten women from 15 countries around the world spent three days in the Danish capital along with the members of the Olympic family.

Nearly 1,400 Submissions

For the first time in the history of the Olympic Congress, the general public was given the opportunity to have their say on the topics being discussed at the gathering. The IOC invited contributions from anyone, anywhere in the world between October 2007 and March 2009.

The IOC asked people to write about one of five themes. The most popular theme was "Olympic Games: How to keep the Games as a premier event", which received 300 contributions out of 1,319; "Olympic Games: Olympic values" received roughly 240 contributions; and "Olympics and Youth: Moving towards an active society" received about 160 contributions. Roughly 100 submissions were devoted to my topic, which was "The Digital Revolution: How to increase the size of the sports audience." My piece was called, "Olympic Audiences in the Wired World."

In the end, there were 1,319 submissions from 1,148 contributors in 90 countries. Singapore was responsible for the most submissions (249), followed by the U.S. (176) and Japan (129). Interestingly, 276 of the submitted essays focused on rugby. This is because the International Rugby Board encouraged people to write in order to show their support for the inclusion of rugby in future Olympics.

Olympic Audiences in the Wired World

My essay ("Olympic Audiences in the Wired World") was devoted to the future of the Olympics in the digital age. I gave my vision of how the Olympic brand should evolve and adapt to the demands of the wired world, and how it can embrace the challenges brought by new technology. I suggested that the IOC experiment in exciting ways with new media in order to bring its message to communities throughout the world.

Here's an excerpt of my submission:

The answer [to increasing the size of the Olympics audience] lies in the essence of content and content diversification. It's important to provide TV and web viewers (who are getting more and more sophisticated) with more detailed, insider Olympic-related content. However, the focus point should be not just in relying more on the one-way online video streaming of the Games, but on attracting Internet users to shape virtual communities around the various aspects of the Olympic Games. This would enable the IOC representatives to more specifically aim at certain audiences and adjust the content and distribution methods to the demands of those audiences and groups...It is vital to offer effective ways of diversifying content in order to reach a larger and more effectively targeted audience.

In the digital age web users are not just content consumers. They are content producers. And this is the key point which should be considered when thinking about and shaping the successful future of the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement in the new media era.

I then offered examples of how some media and entertainment industry giants realized the potential for interacting with their fans, and worked to create online communities and involve people in the marketing of their products. I described how this helped them to extend their brands.

One positive sign is that the IOC embraced social media to help promote the Virtual Olympic Congress. It created a Facebook page, and established an Olympic Congress YouTube channel. It also announced a new video contest that invites people to submit video responses to the question, "How do you see the future of the Olympics?"

Personally, I see the future of the Olympics as being inextricably linked to digital media and online communities. What do you think?

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