Fifa should embrace coverage, not curb it

Sometimes it’s better to hope for forgiveness, rather than to ask for permission.

This is what the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) must be thinking after the group asked Fifa to loosen its limits on journalists delivering coverage to cellphones.

What they got instead was a tightening of coverage conditions.

The story begins in January with Sanef writing to Fifa, pointing out newspapers’ unhappiness with the restrictions. No reply was forthcoming, so the organisation tried again in March.

What Sanef wanted was Fifa’s permission to publish World Cup coverage via technologies like cellphone applications. These are software programmes residing on phones — like the well-known Mxit service.

Some of these apps work to connect a user to content services, and many media companies have specially tailored offerings for the iPhone, for instance.

The editors’ concern was Fifa’s existing accreditation regime which:

  • Bans any coverage that entails mobile alert services, downloads to mobile devices and MMS messaging.
  • Refuses permission for news sites “intended for, or promoted as being available for, mobile access/viewing”. The sole exception here is for cellphone-targeted WAP sites carrying text and still photos.

Earlier this month, Fifa delivered a belated response to the editors’ appeals, and extended, rather than reduced, its previous limitations on coverage.

According to Fifa now, “any technology or application which simply enables consumers to view Internet Website Permitted Publications — which feature still images taken within accredited venues — are permitted to the extent that their functionality only permits a pull service—” (my italics).

Fifa describes a “pull service” as something where “it is on the consumer to actively seek to view (but not download) the Permitted Publication without any prompting”.

It then continues (ungrammatically): “Any kind of push service that alerts consumers to updates which in any way feature images taken within accredited venues are not permitted”.

In summary, whereas the earlier restrictions applied only to publishing for mobile devices, the reply letter now extends this limitation to any kind of website and it further puts paid to any kind of “push” service.

At root, Fifa wants to protect its mega-revenue flow of selling live broadcast rights to TV networks. So even its tiny concession that allows coverage for cellphone WAP sites excludes video.

But in its desire to prevent anything that is even very remotely similar to live TV transmissions, Fifa is now also blocking even push services for still photographs.

Highly archaic conception of mass communications
Of even greater concern, Fifa’s rule in effect also now extends to push-based textservices. Thus beyond the already banned SMS or MMS alerts, newspapers should not even send out emails about new World Cup stories on their sites.

The message to the editors is that they may publish (non-video) content online, but they can’t use electronic communications to draw public attention to what’s being offered — let alone transmit anything direct to subscribers. It’s crazy.

This extended regime reflects a highly archaic conception of mass communications:

  • The notion of “push vs pull” blurs in cases like the iPhone news app, which entails both aspects.
  • Nowadays, there’s really no “push-pull” difference between actively signing up for SMS alerts, proactively switching on TV to get a channel, or (proactively again) logging on to watch what’s being chirped on Twitter.
  • The Fifa curbs ignore the reality that most news websites today also deliver headlines automatically by means of RSS
  • .

  • The position also implies that a newspaper should block its online content from being indexed so that updates cannot then be disseminated as Google alerts. In fact, Fifa’s rules would even put the search engine giant itself in the dock.

Where Fifa further seems out-of-touch is in its thinking that newspapers can show people (still) images online, without anyone in the audience downloading them.

The association’s constraints on media communications also permeate the ticket sales conditions, which place a ban on ordinary spectators doing any citizen journalism.

Fifa generously says you can bring a still camera to a game (gosh, can anyone still buy cameras which only do stills?). But here’s the sting: you may only take pictures for private purposes, and especially you may not exploit them commercially.

So, bang goes the prospect of putting up your pictures on Facebook. Tremble in fear for Sepp Blatter’s wrath if you dare sneak your images on to your blog (or other site) and there are Google adverts alongside your upload.

Fifa further tells spectators you may not bring along a video camera, an audio recorder, or an internet-capable computer.

Of course a cellphone today can play all these roles. But another stipulation refers explicitly to “mobile devices” and it outlaws you from capturing audio or video on your phone — and from also transmitting this content if you were disobedient on the first count.

Against the flow
Even more onerously, you are also banned from sending out any other “image, description, or result of any event”. Shorthand: no citizen SMSs are allowed from the games. Why? Because for Fifa, this push technology is like broadcasting.

Of course, Fifa won’t be able to police its draconian restraints except for the most prominent violators. Yet what the rules reveal is less their impracticality than the fact that the organisation is mired in an expired paradigm.

Fifa could easily have sold its live TV rights, and at the same time embraced the full involvement of the press and the citizenry to ensure the biggest splash ever — as made possible by today’s technology.

Instead, the association chose to go against the flow by resorting to artificial and autocratic fiat. It is simply stupid to regulate for information scarcity in an age that has unprecedented information potential — potential even for Fifa itself.

Such authoritarian backwardness is hardly surprising, however. It comes from a body that in 2010 is still forcing journalists to agree not to bring it into disrepute as a condition for getting accreditation.

Anachronistic is the only word to describe Fifa’s approach to coverage of the Cup.

This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author.

Don’t tell Fifa, the “push” technology feed for this column is:

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