The International Olympic Committee distinguished this year's Games not just by awarding them to China but by allowing them to be shown live on the Internet. That's because it was finally satisfied that webcasters could use technology to stop their video streams from crossing national borders. This technology enabled the committee to sell online rights separately in each country and, more important, helped protect its main source of revenue: the exorbitant sums that broadcasters paid for the privilege of televising the Olympics. After all, if NBC had to compete for viewers with online feeds from around the globe, would it have been willing to pay $894 million?
And so it is that we have this nice parallel: The year the Games are held in a country whose government aggressively censors the Net, the IOC begins allowing live coverage online -- if it's electronically restricted. Evidently, the committee doesn't have a sense of irony. NBC has added some limits of its own, by delaying or omitting online feeds for some of the most popular events. But here's another parallel: Just as the Great Firewall of China hasn't stopped determined Chinese residents from accessing banned websites, neither have the broadcasters' restrictions stopped avid sports fans from finding ways to watch and share Olympic videos. The wide availability of unauthorized feeds is a reminder of a 21st century reality: Once content is made available somewhere, it becomes available everywhere. Rights holders can make their content hard to find online, but they can't really make it scarce.