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Britain to examine protecting free online coverage of major sports events

World Cup - England fans watch Croatia v England

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will review whether to protect the digital rights of major sporting events to ensure they are accessible through free-to-air broadcasters, the government said on Monday.

Events such as the Olympics, the men's and women's soccer World Cup and the Wimbledon Tennis championships have full live coverage protected in Britain, meaning they must be available to broadcasters that the public can freely access.

However, the rules currently focus on traditional television broadcasting, meaning that access to watching events digitally isn't protected in the same way.

The government is now reviewing those rules to see if those protections should be extended to the digital sphere.

"As viewing habits shift online, it is right that we review our rules and consider whether updates are needed to ensure our brilliant public service broadcasters can continue to bring major events to the public at no extra cost," digital infrastructure minister Julia Lopez said.

The review begins as the England and Wales teams gear up for the men's World Cup, which will be shown on the BBC and ITV. While ITV is a commercial company, it fulfils public service requirements under its licence to broadcast.

In explaining the review, the government gave the example of an Olympic 100m final, which might be broadcast on TV live in the middle of the night on the BBC, but might not be accessible to a wide audience if streaming and catch-up rights were sold to a different broadcaster that kept them behind a paywall.

The BBC, which broadcasts the Olympics and the World Cup, has offered digital streaming and catch-up availability for the coverage of tournaments it shows.

The government has no plans to review the protected events on the list itself.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Jan Harvey)