The Splinternet

Stephen Lewis has made a decades-long study of both the charms and absurdities of national and ethnic legacies. His most recent essay on the matter, Apple’s iTunes, NPR, Barriers to Giving, and the “Appliancing” of National Boundaries, unpacks the growing distance between the ideals of the Internet and the realities of dysfunctional nationalisms, and the failures of the former to transcend the latter.
He begins by describing his frustrations at trying to obtain podcasts of This American Life while overseas:

As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic concept of national identity quite contrary to the expansive spirit of This American Life and to the “worldwide” as in Worldwide Web. Podcasts of This American Life are available for purchase and download via iTunes only from IP addresses within the boundaries of the United States. Also, even within the US, Apple does not accept for payment credit cards issued by overseas banks. Last, even when listeners from within the US attempts a purchase a credit card issued by a US bank, Apple will not sell them podcasts if their iTunes Stores accounts were originally registered from abroad.

By jigsawing its services to fit national boundaries, Apple fragments the efficacy and global scope of the internet and denies NPR broader listenership, international impact, and potential revenues. By outsourcing exclusive sales of podcasts of the This American Life to Apple’s iTunes Store, NPR denies the benefits and insights of listenership and the pleasure of contributing to the support of Public Radio to Americans living and working abroad, not to mention citizens of all other countries.

Meanwhile, you can hear This American Life for free over the Net on hundreds of streams from the U.S. based public radio stations to which NPR wholesales the program for the stations to sell to listeners (who contribute on a voluntary basis), making the restrictions even more strange. Steve continues:

The Internet — in its role as prime infrastructure for the formation of community and conveyance of the information, entertainment, knowledge and transactions — is intangible and without physical location.  However, the infrastructure that supports it is quite physical, an ad hoc non-purpose-built amalgam of fiber, copper, and wireless  strung together, enabled, and animated by protocols.  By resting on a “borrowed” infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the “gatekeepers” that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements – telecom operators and service providers, cable TV companies, governmental authorities, etc.).  Such organizations still carve up the world according geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of “appliancing” country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions.

Steve also spends a lot of time in Turkey, a country where his own blog (the one I’m quoting here) gets blocked along with every other blog bearing the .wordpress domain name. Lately YouTube and Blogger have also been blocked. (For more on who blocks what, visit the Open Internet Initiative.)

These sites and services are easy for governments to block because they’re clustered and silo’d. Yet on the Internet these clusters and silos, once big enough, take on the character of countries. In this New York Times piece, Tim Wu says. “To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king”. Talk about retro.

Steve continues,

This has turned Google, a private company with no accountability to any constituency, into a negotiating partner of national governments whose laws or policies do not  reflect or respect the ethical stance claimed in Google’s own slogan.  Thus, Google now functions on a diplomatic level with the ability and clout to forge country-by-country compromises affecting internet activity and the free flow of information and opinion, Turkey’s YouTube and Blogger ban not least among them.

Well, Google does have accountability to its customers, most of which are advertisers. Which makes the whole thing even more complicated.

Meanwhile the promise of the Net continues to be undermined not only by wacky forms of counterproductive protectionism, but by our own faith in “clouds” that can often act more like solids than gasses.

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17 comments

  1. gregorylent’s avatar

    nice to point this out .. geo-tarding is too old-paradigm .. thanks ..

  2. Todd Spraggins’s avatar

    Doc, I’m not sure that this is all apple or its supplier’s domain causing these issues. There is a horrible mountain of rules and regulations covering everything from banking to taxation who’s jurisdiction cover these transactions. I have been quite impressed and disturbed at how iTunes knows my city and county taxation rates.

    Unfortunately the regulatorium is getting pretty swift at utilizing a full spectrum of tools to inflict its policies, from price regulation of books in France, to content in China, or bank transactions on gaming in the US, all of which rear their heads in e-commerce with global impacts.

    I have to wonder if even the island havens are completely immune from this. Oh to be an ignorant start-up collecting Paypal under the radar.

  3. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Everything old is new on the internet.

    Pascal’s P-Code becomes Java becomes .NET (TM).

    IBM’s VM360 becomes VMware

    With that in mind, I think an old way of communication is going to make a resurgence. I think Sneakernet 2.0 is on it’s way (back) with a vengance.

    There are increasing barriers to full and free internet use. Asymmetric connections which make uploading a pain, the odd and uncertain censorship like that of iTunes, and the costs of Internet “Access” as we all tighten our belts for Depression 2.0.

    With multi-gigabyte storage available at places like Walgreens, and easily transported in a digital camera, it’s easy to see someone figuring out some clever software to keep track of who likes what, and bringing this old transport up to speed in the new millennium.

  4. Stephen Lewis’s avatar

    Doc,

    Thanks for the linkage. Re-reading my post as edited and built on in your post above leads me to think of some VRM-related aspects…

    First, and rather obvious, is that distribution of back issues via paid-for podcasts is a VRM-like way of supporting Public Radio by enabling us to give to the specific programs that we enjoy most. But, by taking away the voluntary aspect of giving and our abilities to give after what we have heard rather than before, it takes away the free-will side of VRM and leaves us with a sort of VRM run wild.

    Second, your additional comment that Google indeed does have a constituency, i.e. its advertisers, raises this VRM-related matter… Could VRM and VRM-related tools potentially enable those of us who use Google’s excellent search and other “products” (Mail, Blogger, Picassa, etc.) — and thus voluntarily comprise the collective “eyeballs” that give Google its power (and revenues) as an advertising platform — to become a collective power equal to Google’s advertisers and equal in clout to the gate- and fortress- keepers with whom Google now negotiates. Can VRM thus, help either overthrow the “monarchy” or at least keep it subservient to “paliament” ala the Dutch or UK models?

    SL

  5. vanderleun’s avatar

    “Well, Google does have accountability to its customers, most of which are advertisers.”

    In a very backwards and unthreatening way, that’s true but not, I think, significant. The Google/Advertiser relationship sets the traditional advertiser to medium relationship model on its head. It is as if there is suddenly only one magazine and that magazine is much, much larger than any single advertiser.

  6. Robert’s avatar

    We need ‘p2p’ search — the database needs to be distributed, bittorrent. It sounds like a really interesting problem.

  7. Robert’s avatar

    er, the comment above should have read ‘*like* bittorrent’

  8. steve kit’s avatar

    This American Life is a free podcast in iTunes.
    Free downloads and subscriptions.

  9. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Steve – it’s free as in Beer.

    You’re not free to give it away… so it’s not free as in Speech.

    Richard Stallman has done a great service by providing the canonical example to use to define the difference.

  10. CJ Hinke’s avatar

    As I live in Thailand, I couldn’t download Michael Moore’s (free) Slacker Uprising but found a workaround via free VPN.

    We can rail against censorship as in Turkey or Thailand but, truth is, there’s ALWAYS a workaround.

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