Media outlets are billing the upcoming London Summer Olympic Games as "the first social media Olympics." That means athletes and coaches will be posting, tweeting, Facebooking and generally bringing fans closer to the action more than ever before. So why is the International Olympic Committee trying to censor participants? 

During the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Facebook had 100 million users and Twitter six million. This time around, athletes, coaches and other participants will address 900 million Facebook members and 140 million Twitter members. The Internet Olympic Committee is aware of both the benefits and pitfalls of participants communicating directly with fans. It also recognizes that social media will be a huge part of the Olympic experience. So, while the organization is encouraging athletes to blog, tweet and use Facebook during the games, it has also issued guidelines that must be followed by participants.

Some of the guidelines are clearly motivated by the IOC’s need to protect the investment of broadcasters and advertisers who have paid to be officially linked to the Olympics. For example, one rule states that “participants and other accredited persons are not permitted to promote any brand, product or service within a posting, blog or tweet.” That is, if Nike sponsors an event, participants had better not tweet on behalf of Reebok.

Others are more ambiguous. For example, “Postings, blogs and tweets should at all times conform to the Olympic spirit and fundamental principles of Olympism as contained in the Olympic Charter, be dignified and in good taste, and not contain vulgar or obscene words or images.” This directive leaves a gaping gray area in which athletes can't possibly know what might offend the committee.

Brad Shear is an attorney and author of the Shear on Social Media Law blog. In a recent interview with ReadWriteWeb, he said that the IOC is well within its rights to have a social media policy that includes potential sanctions. Olympians have a variety of contractual obligations and agree to rules and regulations that apply when they reside in the Olympic Village. “When you have a contractual relationship, you can be punished," he said, "and if you don’t abide by the regulations, you can be punished. Being an Olympian is a privilege, not a right.” 

Alex Huot, IOC Head of Social Media, emphasized in a keynote speech at April's TheNextWeb2012 conference that the Olympic governing body is focusing primarily on facilitating connections between fans and athletes, and paying close attention to what types of interactions the fans prefer.

If fans prefer interactions that the committee deems unseemly, though, they'll be out of luck. What one person considers in good taste, another may not. In one culture, a word may be considered an obscenity, while in another, the same word may rarely raise an eyebrow. While many calls will simply rest on the committee’s judgment, in most cases the remedy will be simple: The IOC will issue a takedown notice to the participant, simply stating that the content must be removed from the athlete’s Facebook page, Twitter account or blog. The consequences of failure to comply are not clear. The committee threatens sanctions, but it hasn't yet specified specific penalties. 

Such takedown notices may be counterproductive, Shear said, citing the so-called Streisand Effect. "Once you start removing content, people try to find it,” he explained. And almost inevitably, they will. In June, for example, two Australian swimmers posted a photo on Facebook which showed them holding weapons at a California gun shop. Swimming Australia, the sport’s governing body, ordered them to remove the images, and their contract with the organization obligated them to comply. Naturally, the image is widely available.  

Shear said he believes that the IOC’s social media policy is, at best, a work in progress, and that both official Olympic sponsors and the IOC will likely learn some hard lessons as the 2012 games progress. "It’s a great idea to protect advertisers in digital space," he said. "But if Olympian A tweets, factually, that he had a Hershey's bar, another company that has paid to be the official Olympic candy bar can complain that the tweet is harming their brand. What is the IOC going to do about it? They will ask the athlete to remove the tweet, but once it’s been retweeted, once it’s out there online, it’s hard to remove.”