[As ever you can read this on the BBC News website – and it seems the story is already moving on, with reports that press access to the net will be filtered by the Chinese]
I won’t be going to Beijing for the Olympic Games next month, and in fact I probably won’t even be going to London in 2012 when it’s our turn to host the festivities.
I don’t watch athletics or any of the other events that will be taking place. I don’t support a football team either, or have much interest in cricket despite being an English male. Sport just doesn’t excite me at all.
But even though I don’t care which country wins most gold medals or whether world records are broken for running, jumping or throwing odd-shaped objects, I’ll be watching what goes on around the Olympic Games with keen interest, because this world-wide sporting event offers a fascinating perspective on the state of the internet today.
Back in 2004 the Athens games generated an astonishing amount of traffic to Olympics websites, and in the last four years the number of net users has almost doubled from around 750 million to 1.4 billion.
That is going to place a massive strain on the official Olympics website and the associated infrastructure, and it will be interesting to see how it stands up. Over the past few months we’ve seen a number of high-profile websites fail, including Amazon and Facebook, and just this week when Amazon’s S3 service was offline for several hours because of too much ‘gossiping’ between servers – that’s the official explanation, honest.
The Olympics are also the first real test for Silverlight, Microsoft’s alternative to Flash for building rich-content sites with streaming media, after they did a deal with NBC to use it to deliver all the USA’s online coverage of the events.
So far it looks great, and works well with Firefox on my MacBook as well as in Windows, but there have been a number of criticisms of Silverlight’s video capabilities and if the servers don’t keep up then this could be a PR disaster for Microsoft at a critical point in its attempt to build its online business.
Then there will be the battle to police the content, as the International Olympic Committee is one of the most aggressive bodies around when it comes to protecting its content and controlling its use.
As expected, the IOC is exerting as much control as it possibly can over all aspects of the event online. The Olympic symbol and other insignia, and even the use of the word ‘Olympics’, is rigidly managed, largely to protect the commercial interests of the high-paying sponsors, but there are also complex restrictions on the use or reuse of video. Video clips cannot be embedded, so anyone wanting to blog about the Olympics will have to link to the original site, and anyone taking excerpts and posting them can expect to have them pulled pretty quickly.
And whatever else this may be, it is not going to be the YouTube Olympics. YouTube removed all videos showing material from the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, and they will surely do the same next month.
Then there is the politics. The decision to award the 2008 Games to Beijing was controversial right from the start, and in recent months we have seen reports of dissidents being arrested. Just this week local journalists attempting to report fights in ticket queues in Beijing were detained and had video footage deleted, a sign that the promised openness may not be delivered.
Reporters have also found that despite promises from Chinese officials sites like BBC’s Mandarin site and Apple Daily are still blocked, and there are concerns that visitors’ traffic will be as heavily monitored as that of Chinese citizens.
As the games get nearer the tension between the authorities’ desire to control all aspects of reporting and their willingness to keep to the promise of offering free access will increase, and anyone interested in the future of China will learn much from how it is resolved.
With all this going on, I’m surprised anyone has time to think about the athletics and other sporting events planned for August.