The Economist, October 27, 2012
In March 2012 two Chinese internet companies, Youku and Tudou, announced they were going to merge. The deal sounded just like many in the West: in a booming but overcrowded market, consolidation was overdue and the two leaders, both still making losses, decided to join forces. Yet the deal was also unlike any in the West, because there is nothing quite like Youku and Tudou elsewhere.
The two are online video companies, showing anything from Japanese cartoons to “Prison Break”, as well as an increasing amount of their own content. Each has more than 200m subscribers. The closest thing elsewhere is YouTube, but the Chinese are less keen than Westerners on home-made videos, preferring professional fare as a welcome alternative to the dull fodder served up on state television. There is another difference, too. Behind the Great Firewall, YouTube, like Facebook, is blocked.
China demonstrates a basic truth: that the internet, despite its global image, is not the same everywhere. “The internet doesn’t exist,” says Steve Prentice of Gartner, a research and consulting firm. “There are 190 different internets.” One way or another, just about every government tries to control what its citizens may do online. Using Skype to make a voice call, Mr Prentice notes, is routine in America, subject to some restrictions in Canada and can get you arrested in Ethiopia.
In his book, “The Internet of Elsewhere”, published last year, Cyrus Farivar, a journalist with Ars Technica, a website, chronicles the development of the internet in Estonia, Iran, Senegal and South Korea. In Estonia civic-minded techies and bright young ministers introduced widespread free access to the internet. The country came under concerted cyber-attack from Russians after the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a Soviet monument in the Estonian capital, was moved in 2007. In South Korea decades of government investment and hard work have created a rich economy from the ruins of war. The country not only has broadband speeds that most Westerners can only dream of but also professional computer-games leagues. In Senegal, despite the country’s potential, “nearly every single hope has ended in disappointment.” In Iran, where Mr Farivar’s father was born, bloggers were arrested and tortured and had to leave the country.
Some of the internet’s early idealists did not think that governments would be able to interfere in the digital realm. In 1996, in the grandly named Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow addressed governments as “you weary giants of flesh and steel”. He went on:
You have no sovereignty where we gather…I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us…Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context, do not apply to us.
To which governments replied: oh, yeah? Because the internet is a physical entity, of fibres, routers and switches, governments can and do disable parts of it. That explains the blocking of YouTube in China and Iran, as well as other interruptions periodically published by Google. In September there were reports that Iran was planning to create its own domestic internet by next March. It was not clear whether it would also try to cut off access to the global system, which in any case is heavily filtered. Government blocks can often be circumvented, but doing so can be cumbersome and dangerous.
Governments often ask internet companies to remove material that breaks local laws or offends local sensibilities, and even Western democracies are not above trying to censor political content. Last year Google turned down a request from Spanish regulators to delete 270 search results referring to mayors, prosecutors and other public figures. In September this year police in Brazil briefly detained the head of Google’s operations there after the company balked at an order to remove YouTube videos about a paternity suit involving a mayoral candidate, before Google complied.
Internet companies sometimes accept that compliance is the price of doing business. Until 2010 Google filtered the results from its Chinese search engine—in effect, accepting censorship demanded by the Chinese government. It now routes searches coming from the mainland through less constrained Hong Kong. In some Muslim countries Google blocked a YouTube trailer for a film called “The Innocence of Muslims” that outraged people of that faith. It is appealing against a judge’s ruling in Brazil that it should remove clips there, too. Twitter blocks certain tweets from being seen in countries where they would break the law.
Taste and technology
But it is not only politics that shapes the way the internet develops and interacts with the world around it. Consumers and the state of a country’s infrastructure also make a big difference. An American or British online shopper may well pay in advance with a credit card for his goods, trusting both the supplier to send it and the post office or courier company to deliver it. Russians are a good deal warier. They want to be sure that what they order will turn up and that they are happy with it before they pay—and in any case they may not have a credit card. Oskar Hartmann, chief executive of KupiVIP, an online seller of clothing in Russia, says 95% of his sales are paid for in cash on delivery, either to the door (where the courier may have to wait while the customer tries on the clothes) or to a drop-off point in a nearby shop. Since the big international couriers do not cover Russia, KupiVIP and OZON, a broader e-commerce group, have set up their own delivery operations to make sure that goods reach their destination. Cash on delivery is common in China and India, too.
Jun Lee of ReD Associates, a consulting firm, who has observed how people use technology in Kenya and Nigeria, says Africa is seen as a “mobile first” market, in which most people’s introduction to the internet brings them in contact with fairly advanced services, such as money transfer. This, many say, promises great opportunities to technology companies. But Mr Lee cautions that in such countries “the idea of the internet as a place where you can hang out and travel just does not exist.” The cost of using it is prohibitively high. It is seen as a place to find answers to specific questions, such as the market price for a crop. Sometimes the queries are too hard even for Google: “How do I become a better entrepreneur?” Services that might seem wonderful to Westerners may not be much use to an African. A continually updated map on your phone has little value if you always travel by the same route because there is only one, or you do not want to risk breaking down in a strange place.
And even in Western countries not everyone is looking for online reviews of the newest sushi bar and an app-summoned car to take him there. In the suburbs of cities such as Birmingham (England) or Turin, says Mr Lee, people typically live not far from where they grew up, travel no more than a mile or two to work and see their friends in the pub. “They don’t need Facebook.”
This article originally appeared in The Economist.