The Great Internet Breakup


The Internet is being carved up. It is splintering as walls are being put up around countries and content as countries want more control over content within their virtual borders. China has been a long-time example with the Great Firewall.

More recently, India has been attempting to coerce social media companies to block dissenting voices in relation to the government’s ongoing disagreement with farmers and the associated protests.

Of course we also sadly have the Myanmar coup and the shutdown of internet access within the country by the military which overthrew the elected government there.

The World Wide Web – that wonderful commons that so many of us “surf” daily – was founded on standards. These standards were guided by Tim Berners-Lee and include the fundamentals of webpages: URLs, HTTP and HTML. Different countries, wanting to support their home-grown technologies and nationalistic pride, are also backing their standards over others from other countries or regions.

But standards and national pride aren’t the only ways in which the Internet is heading towards Balkanisation.

Content Carve Up

No longer is signing up for one or two streaming/pay TV services going to give you access to more or less what you want. No, we now have seemingly new players popping up every month. In Australia for instance there is Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV Plus, Binge, Disney+, Fetch, Foxtel Now, Netflix, and Stan, plus a bunch of speciality services. All this in a country with a population of less than 30 million people!

We have siloed content and are building more walls around it regularly. Even sport is now sliced and diced. A few years ago you could essentially get your armchair sporting fix in Australia from a single source: Foxtel. Now, if you want to watch English Premier League you need to add an Optus subscription. Want European sports, including top level cycling, you need a FetchTV subscription to access Eurosport. Want all Australian Super Rugby games? Add Stan Sport to the mix. Plus your Foxtel or Kayo subscription for all the other sports.

I am not suggesting that countries shouldn’t be able to uphold and enforce their laws, nor that content license holders shouldn’t get a reasonable return on their investments. There is also an argument that more choice is good for consumers as it promotes competition. But on this occasion I am not sure that it applies. Once you do the maths you end up asking at what cost to individuals or businesses are these silos being built?

Paying the Piper

At some point in the next couple of years consumers and investors are going to decide the outcomes. Are consumers willing to pay $150+ a month to access each service they want? Sure, during a time of pandemic with travel and other items that regularly take up chunks of disposable income off the table it might make sense. But in the medium to long term I can’t see this continuing.

Investors are also going to want to see a decent return on the licensing/rights paid for (or forgone through licensing to others). Is it sustainable if consumers don’t keep opening their wallets? Again, I would think that there is going to need to be some consolidation of the market.

If I am a business that wants to build a global app or website am I going to need to look at building and maintaining multiple versions to cover the various underlying standards, etc, for each part of the world – both technical and content-wise? How will this slow the growth of businesses? How will this affect the decision-making of investors in organisations with global plans? In recent years costs have increased as businesses meet increasing privacy standards such as Europe’s GDPR legislation. Will meeting new regional or country standards be another cost that will simply need to be borne?

How Tall is Your (virtual) Wall?

AOL was original built on the walled garden model with the belief that it knew what was best for its subscribers. But ultimately consumers wanted more freedom and content than what AOL was willing or able to provide.

What if walled gardens finally stick, both from a content/licensing as well as nationalistic perspective? You can’t help feeling that we would all be poorer, both literally and culturally.

(By Peter Vasey, LogMeIn)


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