Free … if you have money

If you thought that the internet would be free of the country borders of the “real” world, think again. There are now signs that the immigration authorities between the rich and the poor countries are being established in cybersspace, not by governments but by internet companies themselves.  Those who control access will not look at the color of your skin or whether you are planning to overstay your visa, no, they are looking at something very specific: the average level of spending of internet users in your part of the world.  

The New Your Times could report last month, that a number of free sites are starting to cut off access to users from the poorer parts of the world. The reason is simple: users in poor countries take up bandwidth but generally don’t spend much money on the in-site advertising.  This means that the explosive expansion of the internet in places like India, is actually a headache for web companies.  The many new users create a need for upscaling servers, but don’t contribute much income.  For companies that are already hard-pressed to show a profit, this means that cutting out Asia, for example, can mean a keeping down expenses.

The NYT calls it The International Paradox (with a typically American sense of ownership of the web, implying that the natural home of the internet is in God’s own country…).   The Paradox is affecting especially the new Web 2.0 sites — Facebook, MySpace, YouTube — that have changed the way people use the web over the past few years, and are now expanding rapidly in the global South.  The users’ own photos and films on these sites require a lot of bandwidth and therefore the sites have been hit hard by their popularity in the south, where advertising revenue is minimal.  The math is forcing some companies — such as Voeh or DivShare — to block whole regions in the world.  Others such as Facebook and YouTube are now considering if they can somehow provide parred down versions of their sites to poorer countries.

The question is of course whether we are seeing a temporary blip, while bandwidth catches up with demand and advertising agencies expand in the poorer countries, or a more long-term trend, where internet companies actively limit their user base to maximize profits. If the later is the case, we could end up with a situation where web services are free for those who can afford to pay for them. And inaccessible to vast number of potential users in the South.

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