The Web is Becoming Less World Wide

Remember when newscasters would say things like the "World Wide Web" and the "Information Super Highway"? In that time period, people also used to spell out addresses starting with "h, t, t, p, colon, slash, slash, double u, double u, double u, dot". Most people don't use these terms anymore nor the "http://www" to start a site address. We refer to "the web" instead, having dropped the "world-wide" part. Is this just semantics, a desire for parsimony, or an advancement in browsers which no longer need the "www" explicitly specified? Of course, it's all of those things but it's also more in my view.

When the internet started and after that, the web, it was truly world-wide and it had the promise of transcending national boundaries. I consider myself to be a citizen of the world and don't find much use for borders. In fact, borders and fights over them have pervaded human history. The web had the promise of making borders irrelevant in important ways. Despite its early promise, I'm finding that the web is getting less world-wide every day.

Much has been made of the controversy over censorship of the web in China but restricting access to specific web content goes much deeper albeit for commercial rather than political or cultural reasons everywhere else in the world. I'm writing this while the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are going on and am able to view the games streaming in my browser from a Canadian site but others elsewhere in the world aren't able to access it. My friends and colleagues in the US have been able to watch television on whereas nobody else in the world can. My friends and colleagues in the UK have been able to watch amazing content via the BBC iPlayer but again nobody else in the world can.

The lack of worldwide access isn't restricted to video content, it is also pervasive for other online content like books and apps. Audio books offered on aren't available universally and free offers are usually restricted to the US. Amazon similarly has a different collection by country and also offers other products in the US than it does elsewhere. Apple's iTune store creates the most frustration for me lately because it is the most US-centric, especially regarding apps. At least half of the time I hear or read about a new app coming out only to find that it isn't available outside of the US. It doesn't help that the majority of the tech media and pundits are US based and have a worldwide reach but don't typically acknowledge that fact and only talk about what is available "in this country" which means "the United States".

I'm sure you're thinking that there are ways around these electronic national borders involving the use of proxy servers but that just reinforces my point that we have to pretend we live in another country in order to have access to their content. We have to pretend to have gone to that country in order to access content on their worldwide web.

So, what's the underlying problem here? When the web initially became popular most websites were little more than online brochures about a company. Most companies had very little problem sharing their brochures electronically. In fact, it made things much less expensive not having to create as many glossy brochures. The next phase of the web involved doing actual commerce via sites. Many of the products sold online during this period were physical things such as computers and as long as you could figure out how to deliver them, things still weren't all that different. The real change came when everything went digital and almost overnight companies that sold music, books, movies, newspapers, applications and the like had to adapt not only to the challenge of copies of their material being made available for free but also the challenge that most of their business was governed by agreements that are country based. It used to be the case during the second phase that websites would have to be clever in how they showed the cost of products in different currencies. The third phase that we're in now has given up on that and simply created separate websites per country. Amazon has an entirely separate website per country and so does the iTunes store. Have a look some time to see how different the iTunes store is for various countries. I sometimes check these sites for comments that have been made about one or the other of my podcasts. In order to see them, I have to go to each country's iTunes store and, interestingly, a number of countries don't actually offer any podcasts and other countries don't provide access to any apps. If you live in your own country's version of iTunes you'd never be aware of that fact.

So where is all this going? Without any attention given this, I think we're going to see an ever increasing balkanization of the web. With the increasing use of geo-location, we could even see more filtering of content in search results and even social media serving personal and commercial interests. However, this will further reduce the worldwide nature of the web.

So what's so wrong with not being worldwide? Well, that's what we were before we had these technologies and I happen to think that the world would be a better place if the web were more worldwide. I think tensions between the peoples of different nations are lessened if they are better connected with one another. I think the sharing of news, media, and culture fosters the sense of a global village. If we all feel more like citizens of the world, we're more likely to collectively care about it and prevent its destruction. If you think that sentiment expressed in the previous sentences in the paragraph is too soft and idealistic, then let me make the point too that ensuring that the web stays worldwide will mean vastly larger markets for the companies on it. We need to fix the antiquated contracts, distribution rights, and laws so that companies will be able to derive the huge benefits of a worldwide market.

Part of the reason why I wanted to write this post is that I'm not sure how many people are aware of these changes happening to the web. If you live in a country like the US, you'll have heard of filtering and lack of access in countries like China and Iran regarding political issues but you likely haven't heard of the filtering and lack of access right across the globe for largely commercial purposes.

Sorry for the length of this post. I hadn't intended to write this much. I'd like to now turn it over to you to ask you to start the conversation on this by contributing your thoughts via comments to this post.