The Olympic flame had scarcely been lit last month when the cyberpolice of the Sydney Games leaped into action. Patrolling the Internet for unauthorized use of Olympic symbols like the interlocking rings, technicians at Copyright Control Services, an independent company hired by the International Olympic Committee, found a Web site that was illegally posting shots of the Opening Ceremonies. The offender was a site belonging to a TV station in Moscow.
While the station could legally televise Opening Ceremony coverage, the Webcast violated Olympic rules that prohibit the transmission of audio or video images beyond a station's local territory. The IOC instituted these rules to protect the exclusive rights of NBC and other broadcasters that forked over 60 percent of the revenue needed to conduct the Games.
Copyright Control Services phoned officials at the Moscow TV station, which then nixed its Webcast. That was just the beginning. During the 16-day Olympic festivities, Copyright Control Services and three other technology firms working for Olympic organizers identified approximately 40 Web sites that featured unauthorized video or images.
None of the offending Internet sites - at least none of those caught - was run with malicious intent, Olympic officials say. "We found people were not blatantly ignoring the rights, they just were not aware of the rights," says Dave Powell, chief executive of CCS. In fact, a number of the violators were tied to broadcast outlets like ITN in the U.K. ITN Internet site producer Lisa O'Sullivan says the IOC objected to their use of the interlocking ring symbol. ITN pulled it immediately. Olympic regulations for the Net can be overly restrictive, she says. "People are looking to the Net to get what they can't get elsewhere, but then there are those restrictions. We'd like to put up video, but we can't."
For the just-concluded Games, the 60 CCS technicians had a daunting task. They began by selecting 25,000 sites that had prominent mentions of the Olympics. From that pool, they kept a close eye on a few thousand sites that had heavy traffic. They checked as many as 200 sites a day for violations.
As vigilant as the Olympic organizers were, the Internet is huge and officials acknowledge that some rogue sites probably were undetected. "We do not claim at all that we are exhaustive" in our search for Internet pirates, says Eric Kalfon, chief executive of Datops, a French firm that worked with CCS. "What we claim is we have a technology that is quite powerful and we think we get a very good percentage of the Internet."
While Olympic organizers pat themselves on the back for their online crackdown, they recognize that they need to change with the times. Surfing the Web for violators is not the answer to the Olympics' Internet problem; clearly, the IOC has to figure out a way to include the Net in its media strategy.
The IOC will meet in December to discuss broadcast-rights issues with news outlets like NBC. For Olympic organizers and for sports leagues all over the world, the Net presents a difficult medium to capitalize on. "It's the next major challenge," says Gary Treadaway, sales and marketing director with Sponsorship Information Services, one of the companies working for the Olympics during the Sydney Games. "How do you control it when you put an event on the Internet and everyone has access to it? Will broadcasters be willing to pay millions for an event when there is no guarantee that they have exclusive rights?"
Broadcasters are unlikely to cede to the Internet quickly. After all, the number of people who want to click on the Internet for Webcasts is vastly eclipsed by TV audiences. "The ad dollars won't support it," says Gary Zenkel, senior VP of NBC Olympics. "Until there is enough demand and enough revenue to support that platform, we won't focus on it."
Until then, it looks as if the cyberpolice will continue to be in demand - at least through the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.