Sunday, March 14, 2010

The internet is getting less "inter"

Ultra-nationalism, having lead to two world wars, isn't everybody's favorite philosophy. Except, it appears, for media companies. On the one side you hear a lot on how the internet is propelling us into a bright new future, where broadband access allows us to access all sorts of media anywhere and how we like. But once you leave your country of birth, you'll quickly realize that this bright new future has strict national borders, which are totally artificial, and errected by media companies to protect their profits.

My experiences with the PS3 are one example: To use various internet features of the PS3, like downloading games, or participating in PS3 social networks, you need to create a Playstation Network account. But the country you enter when setting up that account is linked to the language option you have. Me, living in Belgium, I would have the choice between Dutch and French when putting Belgium as my country of residence. Bloody hell, I don't want games and media in Dutch or French, I want them in German or English, for games usually English because the German translation isn't always that good. So I sneakily put United Kingdom as my country of residence, so I would have access to English games and media. But when I wanted to buy a game, United Kingdom was fixed unchangeably on the billing address form, and thus my credit card was refused.

Even worse, you can't even change your country in the Playstation Network account. In the end I had to buy a prepaid Playstation Network Card with £20 on it via the internet, fill up my virtual wallet with that, and now I can finally buy UK games on my PS3 in Belgium. I still can't use the Media Server functionality of the PS3, or the BBC iPlayer functionality, because those detect from my IP address that I'm outside the UK and block all media access for me.

On the PC it's the same thing. If you are in the United States, you can use Hulu to view various TV shows on your PC. If you live outside the United States (regardless of whether you have a US passport or not) you are excluded from Hulu, and they even set up protection systems to prevent people using fake IP addresses to pretend they are in the US. And there are lots and lots of other examples: If you want to consume media from your home country in your home country, there are more and more possibilities. If you want, oh horror, to work as an expatriate in another country, or, even worse, watch media from a different country and culture, you're out of luck.

When asked for a reason, the media companies will mutter something about "rights management". But the reason behind it is really that it is more profitable for those countries to be able to control the ways how people in other countries can have access to media content. For example a TV show from the US is usually first shown in the US before being sold to TV networks in other countries, so the network producing the show does not want foreigners to be able to already see the episodes on Hulu, which could diminish the sale value to the other countries TV network. And of course it is more profitable to sell Europeans region-code protected overpriced DVDs of some TV show instead of either letting them watch that show via the internet or letting them buy US DVDs. Or to sell them games on Steam for 50% more than the US price.

I think that the internet being international is a major force for good, for democracy, for cultural exchange, and ultimately for peace. I object to media companies splitting up the internet into national sub-nets for the purpose of profit maximization. And I don't even think the nationalization of media content is good for business, because the very idea of services like Hulu is that bringing people into contact with media content will make them spend money on more of such content later on. If some TV series is never shown in Belgium, and media companies block all my access via the internet to it, why would I be interested in that TV show enough to buy the DVD and the T-shirt? If some game is available by download only, and for some phoney "rights management" reason isn't being sold in Europe, how would I ever be able to give money to the game company? Blocking access to internet content based on where you live is bad!

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