Blown To Bits

The Olympic Struggle to Keep Bits from Leaking

Saturday, August 9th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Bits leak. Of course that’s just a metaphor. Bits wind up where their creators didn’t intend them to be for lots of different reasons. Sometimes they are left unsecured, and sometimes security measures are overcome by determined aggressors. And sometimes there are human errors, especially in complex systems involving multiple corporations or government, where control is agreed upon among peers, not imposed by a strict command hierarchy.

The video coverage of the Olympics combines many features that make it ripe to go wandering. It’s a high-value digital asset; NBC is has paid almost a billion dollars. It’s copious, comes from decentralized sources, and is destined for multiple TV distributors around the world. Hundreds of millions of people want to see it, some of them technically savvy. And it’s on a 12-hour tape delay, which many would love to skip.

As the New York Times reports, some of the pipes have sprouted leaks. A digital plumber in Germany left a spigot open. Videos are popping up on YouTube, and being taken down quickly after NBC complains. From the sidelines, it’s fairly amusing to watch — ¬†an electronic (and much safer) version of the impoverished inhabitants of oil-producing countries such as Nigeria tapping the pipelines.

“Bits want to be free,” Nick Negroponte famously said. We are in the middle of an epic contest to defeat that will. There are another 8 days for the contest to be played out. Who will win — and who will win four years from now? This is the first digital Olympics, and it will likely be the last one where these questions have uncertain answers. As with so much else of the digital world, the arguments are going to be settled soon, and we’ll be living with the resolution for a long time.

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