[Please note] I have recently republished this story on Medium for a bigger audience.
You may be aware that the Internet is not as free as you were once told. It started out pretty free or the idea behind it was connectivity with users around the world and no hassles of government interference or control. You may recall the Usenet groups that made communication among people from all over the world a breeze before the World Wide Web even appeared.
“The Internet is at once a world-wide broadcasting capability, a mechanism for information dissemination, and a medium for collaboration and interaction between individuals and their computers without regard for geographic location.”
This is an interesting statement made by the Internet Society on the Brief History of the Internet. It however, represents a long lost idea. The idea of freedom of communication being made possible online and without interference of any kind to limit the flow of these ideas or other forms of information.
The Internet is much more than just the World Wide Web and websites. It consisted of many services, Usenet being an example I previously mentioned, before Tim Berners-Lee’s idea became a reality and has been before the 90s in such capacity.
According to Web Foundation’s article titled History of the Web:
“As the web began to grow, Tim realized that its true potential would only be unleashed if anyone, anywhere could use it without paying a fee or having to ask for permission.”
This was truly a time of potential and exploration. However, both the WWW and the Internet as a whole have since started to be much more limited in terms of geographical barriers and content control. Geoblocking of content, nations around the world controlling the flow of information and many other hamstrings exist today to a global and free Internet.
A Prime example of this is Netflix. You cannot watch the same content from even your own Netflix account abroad, say in Europe, than you can if you opened and ran your account from the United States. A lot of the content, such as TV shows, will not be available due to various licensing agreements that Netflix made with the producers or providers of such content. It all comes down to money and influence.
Another example of unequal access to online services and Internet restrictions based on geolocation data include the recent European privacy laws, called GDPR, that made many websites that do not comply with the new GDPR law unavailable to European users. This is based around Europe protecting privacy of user information and preventing data gathering for further targeted advertisements among other things. Last time I checked, I could not even open up the LA Times online when connecting from a European IP due to this issue. This is really a U.S. problem or problem with U.S. media not wanting to comply with GDPR.
Such unequal access to media will prevent the flow of information from being free and global. It will also prevent as global collaboration among journalists and media networks as a whole. It is also worth pointing out that this is very disadvantageous for average Web surfers and users who cannot get an unbiased picture on world news due to being prevented from accessing content or articles from even renown media channels, like the aforementioned LA Times.
With a quick search I found more information on such sites and media. The Guardian has written an article mentioning this problem called LA Times among US-based news sites blocking EU users due to GDPR, but it is not the only major publication. According to the Guardian’s report:
“Visitors to newspapers owned by Tronc Inc – formerly Tribune Publishing – which also includes the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and the San Diego Union-Tribune, are being redirected to a page with the message: ‘Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries.’”
This also means that many of us who want to travel and access our Netflix shows abroad will have to forego watching certain things we want to watch or go the route of purchasing VPN services (usually for a fee) in order to trick Netflix and other content providers or media into thinking we are in a different geographical zone (notably the U.S.).
Netflix is not the only example. In fact, many social networks, such as Instagram, offer geoblocking to an extent. Many even adhere to censorship from governments around the world such as China and North Korea to prevent web users in those countries from getting the full content of the site or network or prevent access altogether.
Besides the Web and Internet as a whole being manipulated and controlled by entities, whether governments (like China’s) or companies like Netflix, to bar users based on certain geographic demographics or geolocation, there are greater issues at play. You may have heard of the recent Net Neutrality rules controversies and how the Trump administration in the U.S. has not favored net neutrality, but sided against them.
According to a CNET write-up on the matter:
“Supporters of net neutrality say the internet as we know it may not exist much longer without the protections. Big tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, and internet luminaries, such as Tim Berners-Lee, fall in that camp.”
This shows that there may be different price hikes for different Internet speeds and broadband access to different users and companies rather than a free and equal share of the pie. This is all based on the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) having a heavy hand at deciding how U.S.-based Web traffic and online connectivity rules play out; and this FCC being influenced by politicians or having chairman appointed by presidents.
What is interesting is I had no idea how restricted online access can be until I started traveling or living abroad. This combined with Google’s geoblocking that prevents me from gaining access to U.S.-based Google search without typing /ncr (no country redirect) as part of Google’s url (www.google.com/ncr) are just hassles that should not exist. I found many websites, including Dropbox’s and Apple’s that automatically switch to the language of the country I am connecting from even when I try to switch the url to US or ENG or search for the U.S. based version of the site.
It is interesting how far this approach to Web traffic will go in terms of if it will continue to divide users based on geoblocking or over time if Web access will become more inclusive regardless of geographical location. I hope for the latter as many who are on a trip or those living abroad, but wanting access to the same content they had access to at home, do. Many business leaders and network professionals I am also sure want access to the premiere, or many times U.S.-based, versions of sites and services as they may be superior (Netflix example again) to the versions they are being forced to consume abroad.
Even website creation can become a major pain when switching regions or trying to create a site in English for a global audience. Here in Poland I created a site using Weebly and it automatically displayed Polish for me without asking me if that was the language I wanted to use for both the site itself and the menus. I have since switched to English from the dashboard, however some of the default text that isn’t changeable (maybe unless I went into CSS or HTML and did it by hand) is still displayed in Polish forcing me to delete it. Here is an example of what I am talking about:
Notice that even though it says upload in English, the text actually shows up as pobierz, which is the Polish word for upload once saved. I do not know hot co change it as it is greyed out and default and you can only change the file name of the file you upload through drag and drop. However, there may be a way to do it via the CSS and HTML editor, which I do not even know if I can access without the paid version of Weebly’s plan as I cannot find that editor.
For instance, the drop down menu of archives in the news section of my template says “Archiwa” and the month in a smaller font below. Both of these words as part of the section are in Polish. I can change archive by hand to archives, but the month is hyperlink and unchangeable. What is odd is that even if delete this section and then find it in the menu to the left, it is in English. But once I drag it down to the same section, the text becomes Polish again.
These are all hurdles one has to overcome when traveling or moving into another country and dealing with so much geoblocking, geolocation tracking, and services being thrown down our throats we do not necessarily want (in the even of streamlining the web creation experience as outlined above making it more of a hassle as a result of not allowing us to change the hyperlinked text).
Personally, it will take a long time, and many dictators from around the world to disappear before the Internet truly becomes a free and global phenomenon. There are many hurdles still at play that are preventing even services such as Netflix from being equal around the world both in content and cost. Companies offering services should be the first to realize the importance of net neutrality and geoblocking woes, but when licensing and money are at play it becomes a different game.
However, there is still hope things will start turning around soon. According to the latest news (since I started writing this piece), California may soon approve a a net neutrality bill that would become the largest in the U.S. Again, this is strictly dealing with U.S. politics related to data and the FCC and not something that should affect users worldwide, but it can send a message and have a ripple affect down the road. California is a huge player when it comes to the Net, Web services and Silicon Valley is located there, after all.
This is good news when it comes to data caps and neutral access across sites and networks to U.S. broadband and fiber-optic cables. However, it still does not address the issue of geoblocking of the same content across the globe despite users paying the same if not more of a premium for the service. Again, Netflix comes to mind as the example of this. It also does not address the issue of major media and websites being unavailable to European users due to the GDPR.
I really hope there will be a time when the ideas of what the Internet and the Web should be will come to pass and where someone can log online from anywhere on the globe and access the same services. This will not only open up new job markets and the ability for remote workers to have a fair and equal chance at competition and being productive, but also give kids an example to absorb the same information as their peers in the developed nations, particularly in the U.S who get all the online services available with the click of a mouse.