[As ever, this is also on the BBC News website]
Back in February early adopters of the Spotify music-streaming service found that they could no longer listen to every song in the catalogue. The popular startup had been forced to limit access some songs and artists by country because the licensing deals struck with the record companies and bands specified which territories each song could be played in.
As the company noted on its website at the time, ‘these restrictions are a legacy from when most music was sold on tapes and CDs and they have continued over into streaming music, our hope is that one day restrictions like this will disappear for good’.
Despite protests over the changes the record companies have not yet eased the restrictions, and Spotify joins the long list of digital services that have embraced the global internet but restrict access to their content on the basis of where in the world someone happens to find themselves.
Apple’s iTunes Music Store may be a world-wide success, but it rigidly enforces territorial boundaries and will not even let you use a gift voucher from a different country.
Amazon’s Kindle is not yet for sale outside the US, so having access to the Kindle store might seem a bit redundant, but you can’t even use the iPhone application unless you’ve got a credit card registered to US address, a restriction that seems almost perverse and must be losing them many potential sales to people who will rush out and buy the hardware once it’s available.
If you’re a licence fee payer but find yourself abroad for any reason then you can’t watch BBC content on the iPlayer, while videos from the successful Hulu service remain resolutely US only.
Some of the restrictions are easy to get around.
When Amazon’s online music store was US only it was happy to sell MP3s to anyone who knew how to find a valid zipcode, and services like the BBC iPlayer which limit streaming by checking the internet protocol address of the user’s computer can easily be fooled by using proxy services that make it look like you are in the required country. Today’s internet, it seems, has a large number of virtual walls.
Several years ago I wrote an article for The Register in which I argued that as the network became embedded in our lives the myth of cyberspace would have to be abandoned in favour of an internet which reflected national boundaries, simply because servers have to be located in someone’s jurisdiction and companies providing network services have to operate from somewhere in the real world.
I saw these boundaries as vital for preserving cultural identity in an age of internet-enabled US hegemony, although recognising that they could be used by closed societies to keep information from their citizens and that open networks would have to become part of the general conversation on human rights around the world.
What I didn’t anticipate was that commercial services would be doing more than national governments to build and maintain these walls between us, or that they would be doing it in pursuit of short-term profits at the expense of their longer term viability.
The main effect of these barriers to commerce is twofold.
First, customers who would be happy to pay for a product or service find themselves unable to do so and presumably go elsewhere for their entertainment or enlightenment, taking their money or potential value to advertisers with them.
More importantly, those with more technical prowess and less respect for the marketing strategies of major corporations will find that most of the material which they desire is available through alternative, unlicensed channels. If the SciFi Channel will not let me stream the Battlestar Galactica webisodes that were so effective at building up suspense between series then there is always BitTorrent, with no advertising, no restrictions on which devices will play the downloaded files and no bill to pay.
At the moment the content industry is responding to this by seeking stronger and stronger legal protection for their contractual terms and conditions. One of the provisions of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement being negotiated in secret by a number of states would be to allow border inspections of laptops, phones and MP3 players and the seizure of unlicensed content found there, and there are continued attempts to pass laws that will oblige internet service providers to cut off users accused of copyright infringement.
In the longer term the loss of sales and advertising income to unlicensed sharing may well persuade them that agreements negotiated in the pre-network day are simply not appropriate any more, and we will see more deals like that between publisher HarperCollins and the Tolkein estate, which will see an electronic edition of Lord of the Rings available worldwide, but progress at the moment seems remarkably slow.
I still believe that boundaries in cyberspace are not only inevitable but that they can provide a benefit for those who wish to preserve aspects of their societies against the homogenising influence of the global network culture of which I am already a part.
And I still think that allowing repressive regimes the tools that let them open up access to the network gradually rather than demanding that they simply bring down all barriers is a better way of achieving political progress and more openness.
But I’m also a spoiled child of the first generation of the open internet, and get annoyed every time a shop refuses to sell me something or a service refuses to let me in. How we reconcile these different desires will, I believe, be a defining debate for the long term development of the network society.