Monday, January 18, 2010

The Great Firewall of the West

At some point in the past, a network engineer decided to call a system he was working on a "firewall". I'm sure he was a very competent network engineer, but really he should have been in marketing. The term has caught like wildfire, if you'll excuse the horrible pun. There's even a Harrison Ford movie of the same name; in fact these days it's hard to find a popular culture reference to computers that doesn't mention a "firewall" of some sort, usually in completely the wrong context. It's one of those things; people just love saying "firewall". It sounds cool.

Thus the conglomeration of systems that allows the inhabitants of the People's Republic of China to only access those parts of the Internet deemed suitable for them by the Party has been dubbed "The Great Firewall of China". Search for "Tiananmen Square" on images.google.cn and you'll get pictures of happy tourists taking snaps against the beautiful backdrop of the historic square. Search for the same on images.google.com and you'll get the usual lines of tanks running students over during the 1989 student protests; the difference being, if you're actually in China, you can't get to images.google.com, or any of millions of other sites banned for reasons big or small. All you get is the sanitised version.

This state of affairs has caused much consternation in the liberal West by people who like to point their finger at China and tut with disapproval. These people are fond of pointing out that the Internet doesn't work that way; to get the benefit of the Internet you need to allow unrestricted access to information. They also point out that it's a rather futile effort that mostly causes frustration; anyone determined enough (e.g. most American and European expats I know living in China, who want to check their email now and again) can get around the filters rather easily, and anyway the rate at which "objectionable" content appears is much, much higher than the rate at which the government censors can identify and block it. I happen to completely agree with these objections, but come on, this is China, are you really surprised?

The People's Republic has a very different concept of human rights than most developed nations; their censorship of the Internet is merely a side-effect of this. Over here in the West we pride ourselves on being much more liberal. Short of child pornography, you can basically send and receive anything on the Internet without any barriers, legal or technical.

Well, anything that isn't copyrighted. At least, not without the copyright owner's permission, and on the copyright owners terms, however ridiculous they might be. As it so happens, the vast majority of material produced over the last century is copyrighted (repeated extensions of the term length of copyright have ensured this) and the vast majority of the copyright holders don't want it on the Internet. Those that do, however, are doing more harm to the Internet than China ever could.

You see, copyright owners are beginning to wake up to the fact that putting their stuff on the Internet might be a good idea. Of course, other people have woken up to this fact a long, long time ago, but I digress: Sites like Hulu in the U.S.A. and BBC iPlayer in the U.K. allow people to access video content - the same content they see on TV - via the Internet.

Good job, that. I can testify that the iPlayer is a very useful site. Unfortunately, I have no opinion about Hulu, because I can't access it. In fact, whenever I'm outside the UK, I can't access iPlayer either. You see, neither of these sites are available outside the countries they operate in.

This might seem normal to most people who are used to pre-Internet media distribution. Hollywood movies always opened in the U.S. first. When I was a teenage music fan growing up in Athens, I had to take a 90 minute bus ride to the city centre to visit record shops that had a rather pitiful selection of vinyl, so the first time I visited an HMV in London I felt like a kid in a candy store. The reasons are well understood; it costs money to ship vinyl, CDs, books and all the other media all the way out to Greece where the market is tiny. In fact, I'd wager my experience wouldn't have been much different to that of an American living in rural Montana as opposed to one in Manhattan. Economies of scale: The big cities get all the new stuff.

With the Internet, however, this is not the case. By its very design, anyone on the Internet can access anything on the Internet. To actually limit this access - either by geography, as the US and UK do, or by content, as China does - actually requires extra effort. For a website like Hulu to identify which country an incoming Internet connection is coming from is quite a difficult thing to do, and easily spoofed.

I find it hypocritical that the West criticizes China for crippling the Internet by trying (in futility) to enforce their laws with insufficient technical means when the US, the UK and several others are doing exactly the same; or perhaps, exactly the opposite; ironically, mirroring their respective political views, the West is on a futile quest to keep content in while China is on futile quest to keep content out. In either case, the same criticism applies: "You're missing the point, people!"

Why can't I get Hulu here in the UK? Why can't I get iPlayer when I'm in Greece? Why can the farmer in rural Montana now download any music he wants via iTunes or Amazon MP3, but the farmer in rural Patagonia can't? Why does the iTunes store have a different selection of content depending on which country you're in?

Does this make sense, even from a business point of view? There's no point in doing a cost-benefit analysis here. As I mentioned before, it actually costs more to limit access than it does to allow it. If some guy in Trinidad & Tobago fancies spending $0.99 on an iTunes track, is his money not as good as anyone else's? Wouldn't this actually allow the copyright holders to make more money?

The real reason for this is, of course, that copyright holders are very closely tied to their existing, pre-Internet distributors. Cable channels, radio stations, record stores, they're all so closely intertwined that the copyright holders dare not compete with them. Hence every effort to get copyrighted content online has had ridiculous restrictions placed upon it in order to placate the distributors that are (rightly) afraid that they can't compete.

Perhaps this all seems wistful when taking about pop music and sitcoms, but digital bookstores have similar restrictions; the value of the BBC's video news and reporting cannot be underestimated for so many people with no access to any news source of a similar standard. The fact is that the Internet has the potential - already being realised in so many places - to level the playing field and allow people in far-flung or impoverished parts of the world to access the same information - if not the same goods and services - as those in the richest, most cosmopolitan corners of this planet. Placing geographical restrictions on content solely to appease distributors is not just bad business - it's just bad.

Update: Google has announced that, after detecting a concerted attack against its infrastructure apparently by the Chinese government in order to spy on human rights activists in China and abroad, it will start negotiations with the aim of either offering fully uncensored Internet search or pulling back from China. Good for them. If only iTunes and Amazon MP3 could stand up to the Big Content lobby as easily as Google is standing up to the Chinese government. I mean, come on, they don't even have nuclear weapons.

1 comment:

  1. This ties in perfectly with the net neutrality things that you posted the other day - and is definitely making a valid point. However, we all know that when it comes to TV content, the current business model only caters for European (mainly) broadcasters that can't produce their own content and rely on running shows that are at least two or three years old. Having said that, I don't understand why TV series (or any other content) can't be aired simultaneously throughout the world - thus enabling services like Hulu or iPlayer to not have content restriction thereafter since most broadcasters only buy one-off rights anyway.

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