Creeping Balkanization is the internet’s worst enemy. As worldwide literacy grows exponentially, for the web, such expansion results in increasing pressure from corporate interests and regulatory nationalisms. Rising from its arcane beginnings as a DARPA research project, the net has become a symbol of borderless communication between individuals and of unlimited access to knowledge. Unfortunately, the net is about to become a heavily controlled environment, serving two classes of citizens: a dominant class that sets the rules (technological, legal and commercial) and the underclass of citizens and consumers.

Consider these two macro trends:

The first one stems from the world’s linguistic evolution. As of today, there are about one billion English-speaking people worldwide, half of which are native speakers. This latter proportion keeps growing as education improves; this growth reinforces the prevalence of English as the main internet lingua. With 500m people, English accounts for 27.5% of the connected population. Chinese makes the second language group with 400m people, 22.6% of the net population (and the mother of all government-mandated restrictions).

Beyond that, only the Spanish group (7.8% of the internet population) and the Japanese (5.3%) are above the 5% threshold. French accounts for 3.2% of internet users, with a global number of 57m.
Asia’s expanding literacy involves not only national languages (such as Mandarin or Hindi), but also the learning of English. In fact, the “use” of English could be much larger than shown in official statistics. Back in 2006, according to linguistics professor Braj Kachru, the “use” of English, as he called it, involved more than 500m people in India and China combined (see story in the Asian Times).

In many European countries, teenagers’ exposure to the English-speaking internet (for example through illegal downloads of movies and series) is a powerful learning vector.

The second trend involves the telecommunication infrastructure. The physical world is increasingly connected. Take optical fiber: its 2009 global market (outside China) represented 171m of fiber-kilometers, a 22% growth versus 2008 ; and that doesn’t reflect each fiber’s capacity to carry more data as carriers use more sophisticated modulation/demodulation circuitry.

Mobile internet? According the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), broadband mobile subscriptions are overtaking fixed connections. Today, there are about one billion 3G mobile subscribers worldwide, a number expected to double by 2013. This is driven by technology progress and falling prices. Between 2008 and 2009, the average global broadband subscription price has decreased by 42%; cell communications (4.6bn subscribers worldwide) prices dropped by 25%, and fixed lines by 20%.

You get my point : more English internet users, increasingly linked thanks to more and cheaper bandwidth. Of course, there are still 28 countries where the cost of internet broadband subscription is equivalent to one month’s wages. But the digital divide is narrowing. For mobile telephone usage, developing countries lag a well-equipped country like Sweden by only 10 years – but still by 72 years in terms of infant  mortality.

Unfortunately, the emergence of this culture, of this knowledge-hungry population is met by an increasing lockdown of the internet. Of course, a Bangalore student can still get a lecture about electrical engineering provided by Stanford University or the MIT, but the commercial internet is now strictly reined in. This trend is driven by a cascade of technical controls that condition commercial policies which, in turn, must submit to trade regulations restraints.

#1 Technological control. Protocols, hardware, software are mostly US-designed. If, overnight, a couple of players such as Apple and Microsoft decide that Flash sucks, their gravitational field acts upon everything else (they might be right, technically speaking for web-video, but still many Flash-based multimedia productions becomes useless, like providing glasses that won’t read old books…) The same goes for hardware designs (microchips, graphic components), operating systems and even HTML norms (even though W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, is supposed to be an international organization).

#2 Commercial control. As the internet becomes more applications-oriented, this control over hardware and OS designs and suppliers influences the availability of contents. The perfect example is the Apple ecosystem (iPhone, iPod, iPad devices + iTunes + Applications). Willing to focus on its lucrative domestic market, and for alleged production reasons, Apple decided to postpone the release of the iPad outside the US by a couple of months.
Fine. But in doing so, it blocked the access to the iPad App store and all its related contents. To use my own [admittedly grey-market] iPad, I managed to switch from a France-based iTunes account to a US one (you must have a billing address there). Then, a new world of contents and applications materialized before my eyes. All the applications I was prevented from grabbing for my iPhone suddenly became available, so did recent movies (to rent or to purchase), TV series, documentaries… and books.

#3 Regulatory control. Apple is not the only one to territorialize its system (although it does that with a great zeal). Country blocking — i.e. the ability to implement regional restrictions though Country Code Top-Level Domain –  is in fact dictated by complex country-to-country copyright contractual agreements.

Movie releases work under strict rules which govern the availability timeline on different platforms: first in theaters, then on DVDs, paid-TV, cable, and finally broadcast. Each country has its own system that cannot be violated. As an example, this explains why the TV series Damages was first aired by the American cable network FX in July 2007, but had to wait February 2008 to show up on French pay-TV Canal+, and one more year to be shown on “free” broadcast TV.

Understandably, a French TV broadcaster will want to protect its expensive exclusivity. This is why the free streaming channel Hulu, all US networks and part of the iTunes Store are not accessible outside the United States.

But this system, engineered by corpocrats, is completely outdated. Release windows, regional rights restrictions no longer make sense in the internet era. As file sharing systems become easier to use (and as they are served using an ever-expanding bandwidth), all such restrictions do is encouraging massive illegal downloading, even in populations that are not particularly prone to it. Probably spending several thousands euros per year for all sorts of medias, I would have happily paid 4 dollars per episode for the Season 3 of Damages. But since it was not available thru any legal channel, I managed to get my weekly fix the very next day it was aired in the US.

The very absurdity of the global digital system is revealing itself. It created all the instruments for global access and, then, turned around and arbitrarily restricted its commercial use, paving the way for piracy. Think about it: our broadband networks now allow seamless streaming of films, TV shows, music and, soon, of a variety of multimedia products; we have created sophisticated transaction systems; we are getting extraordinary devices to enjoy all this; there is a growing English-speaking population that, for a significant part of it, is solvent and eager to buy this globalized culture and information. But guess what? Instead of a well-crafted, smoothly flowing distribution (and payment) system, we have these Cupertino, Seattle or Los Angeles-engineered restrictions.

C’mon guys. This is 2010. Take your private jets and travel a bit. You’ll see that in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, or Oslo, most of us are global consumers who want one thing: being able to flash our credit card and buy every single piece of dematerialized cultural or informational good we want. Those passé commercial agreements are no longer enforceable. Time to tear down these digital walls.

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