Saturday, December 13, 2014

New laws are breaking up the Internet

There has been a continuing debate as to whether the spelling of the Internet should have an initial capital letter. Given that in general terms there is only one Internet the argument is surely academic, and ICANN - the body that dishes out web addresses - seems to have the opinion that the Internet is a proper noun.

But there is a gradual erosion of the Internet as more and more countries apply restrictions which are effectively creating many different internets and even intranets.

China, Iran, Cuba and North Korea are often cited when it comes to Internet restrictions. But there are a growing number of western democracies that are also imposing restrictions.

"Right to be forgotten"

In the past year Europe has seen dramatic changes to what might be searchable on the web after a so-called "right to be forgotten", ruling imposed by the European Parliament, forced search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing to remove links from search results about aggrieved individuals.

The issue arose from the desires of some individuals to "determine the development of his life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past."

However, the law has essentially created a two tier internet where those outside Europe can search for something that is unsearchable within the EU [Wikipedia]

Copyright issues

In the last few months legislators in parts of Europe focused on Google News which they said infringed the copyright of publishers. The search giant eventually decided to stop publishing such snippets in October [WSJ]. But while Google certainly benefits from its news portal, so too do publisher since traffic is often directed to their site from the Google News page.

Indeed Germany's biggest news publisher Axel Springer has since scrapped a move to block Google from running snippets of articles from its newspapers, after finding that traffic to its sites had plunged.

A Google spokesman in Germany praised the turnaround and said, "The decision shows that Google is making a significant contribution to the economic success of news publishers." [Reuters

While German publications made a U-turn in Spain legislators brought in new laws which forced

This week Google will shut down its Spanish News service in response to a new law that obliges anyone to pay publications for displaying even the smallest snippet of an article [BBC].

Spanish publishers angry

Whilst lawmakers may be happy at their victory, Spanish publications may see a sharp decline in web traffic. In fact such a prospect has already prompted Spanish newspapers to beg their government to drop the proposals which come into force in January 2015.

Following Google's announcement that it would shut down its Spanish version of Google News, the Spanish Newspaper Publishers' Association [AEDE] issued a statement saying that Google News was "not just the closure of another service given its dominant market position" but recognised that Google's decision "will undoubtedly have a negative impact on citizens and Spanish businesses".

"Given the dominant position of Google [which in Spain controls almost all of the searches in the market and is an authentic gateway to the Internet], AEDE requires the intervention of Spanish and community authorities, and competition authorities, to effectively protect the rights of citizens and companies". [The Spain Report / TechDirt]

Google maintains that it makes no money directly from its news aggregator which shows no advertising. Where it may make money is through adsense advertisements shown on the news websites to which it directs its users.

"This new legislation requires every Spanish publication to charge services like Google News for showing even the smallest snippet from their publications, whether they want to or not. As Google News itself makes no money [we do not show any advertising on the site] this new approach is simply not sustainable," the tech company said in a statement.

Google may lose out since traffic to Spanish news sites will undoubtedly decline. However, the news websites themselves may also a markedly downward decline in revenue. It could be devastating to such websites as those who pay to advertise directly on the said website withdraw from any commercial deals it may have with publications. After all paying to advertise on a site that gets little traffic would make no financial sense.

The Spanish legal move has been branded a "suicide pact" which "invited Google to pull the trigger" by some web commentators [The Spain Report]. Others have called Google's response has been referred to as a "thermonuclear response", but understandable given the circumstances. Furthermore there are fears the Spanish law could even affect the likes of Facebook and Twitter [The Spain Report].

Russia targets western tech companies

Meanwhile in Russia new laws targeting foreign tech companies looks set to change the way Russians use the web forever.

The new law, which bans companies from storing data about its citizens on servers outside Russia, may see its Internet users effectively banned from using the likes of Google services, Facebook, Skype, Adobe Photoshop and even the buying of airline tickets from foreign carriers.

Google has already responded saying that it plans to move engineers out of its office in Russia. Whilst the firm said it "remains committed" to Google users in the country the move will likely have a dramatic effect on the way the company operates inside Russia.

Should other companies obey the letter of the law it would deprive Russians of the opportunity to use Facebook or even buy plane tickets from foreign airlines through their websites. And whilst tech companies have been vague in their response to the new legislation it is clear the Internet won't be quite the same as other tech firms announced their departure.

Adobe Systems, maker of Photoshop and other popular software, announced that it was closing its Russia office [Vedomosti].

Microsoft has yet to make any announcement on how the new laws may affect its Russian user base, however given that Skype also keeps its users' personal data on servers outside Russia, Russian citizens may also be deprived of the popular Internet telephone service [BBC / Bloomberg / Economic Times / Guardian].

Brave new world

And in another step toward the construction of a Chinese-style Great Firewall, communications providers may soon be required to install filtering equipment.

Whilst VPNs [Virtual Private Networks], Tor networks and other circumvention methods are usually used by people in places like China to avoid Internet censorship and by dissidents wishing to avoid state surveillance.

However such software may become the norm, even in European countries, if such trends as seen in Germany, Spain and Russia continue.

What was once a single unified Internet is fast becoming a string of internets and intranets which are far from free and unified.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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