Of the Olympics, Video Fingerprinting and Nationalism

Posted by: Peter Burrows on May 29, 2008

The Olympics may be a time for the nations of the world to come together. But evidently, they don’t put aside hometown favoritism when it comes to choosing technology vendors. At least that seems to be the case with the video fingerprinting systems I wrote about this week.

It turns out that CCTV, the Chinese state-owned TV network, was the first to decide to use the technology to control online piracy of the official Olympics broadcast. In mid-2007, it began testing technology from Vobile Inc., whose headquarters is in Santa Clara, CA. While my sources all say the start-up's system is impressive, it didn't hurt that the company's founder and CEO is China-born Yangbin Wang. Also, it turns out that the vast majority of the company's employees are in China, as well. As we say in our story, the Vobile technology will be used during the Beijing games.

I'm told CCTV's enthusiasm for the fingerprinting technology got the International Olympics Committee interested in trying it out, as well. But the Lausanne, Swizterland-based IOC turned to a vendor based on the continent, as they say: Philips Content Recognition Systems, a unit of Holland-based Philips Electronics. In fact, with time a wasting and with little chance of convincing the world's big video sites to introduce the technology into their carefully-arranged video serving infrastructures by August, the IOC decided to foot the bill for Philips to develop a turnkey version of the technology. Rather than commit to the technology long-term, video sites would be able to simply roll in a server (or more), whose sole job would be to prevent copyrighted Olympic content from being uploaded onto their sites. So far, I'm told there are no takers. Some of the sites have already chosen other vendors, and don't want to take the chance that all this piracy-sniffing will slow down their sites.

As a result, the IOC is now pitching a two-layer anti-piracy regimen. It's still hoping sites will use the Philips technology. But it's also using the version of Vobile technology that the Chinese are using. Rather than be installed by the video sites, it crawls the Web to find unauthorized clips.

Speaking of nationalism, I do think there's a definite dark side to how this technology can be used. Clearly, there are very nasty fair use issues. I can't imagine these technologies will ever be smart enough to know when a piece of video is being used as part of a parody, or in a review.

Also, the technologies can be used to for more than copyright protection. I'm told that it is now possible to create a digital fingerprint from a stream (as opposed to an actual download). That means that once a clip has appeared anywhere on the Web, a company or government could fingerprint it and then take action to ensure it isn't viewed again. Given China's expertise at using technology for censorship purposes (see Naomi Klein's remarkable article on the topic in Rolling Stone, here), it's hard to imagine Vobile's system wouldn't be used to help keep videos of Tibetan protests or other politically controversial material from being viewed in the country.


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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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