Toeing the Internet Censorship Line

Slate has an article about $30 million marked to combat internet censorship, yet not a single dollar has been spent. Quote:

Yet in the subsequent year and half, none of that money has been spent—not in Libya, not in China, not anywhere. Unfortunately, I am not able to explain why. When asked, an official told me that the department had lacked technical expertise and had been forced to reorganize itself in order to "unify the policy" before issuing a call for proposals (one finally went out this past January; results should be available within a month).

Others see darker motives: Weakness, cowardice, anxiety not to displease the governments that create firewalls, especially the Chinese government, which routinely denounces "Internet freedom" as an anti-Chinese plot. As it happens, the two companies that have written some of the most successful anti-censorship programs, Freegate and UltraReach, were founded by by Chinese exiles associated with Falun Gong, the dissident religious movement.

Although in getting to that quote, I think there is a far more interesting quote to lead off the article.

"We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."

It’s a pretty nuanced position forming. The United States wants people to have access to information but having access doesn’t mean free reign over bandwidth (a la current net neutrality movements as of late). Although, as it can be noted, access and bandwidth are two different animals; the latter doesn’t matter without the former. But if latter doesn’t support the kind of information exchanges they want to encourage (including, I would guess, the videos shot by regular citizens showing government violence against them; it’s not like video files are exactly small), then what does access matter if there is nothing to support it?

Not that any of this matters since we aren’t spending the money to begin with. But, the way I see this, this feels like listening to someone who is saying “every child deserves to be born” followed by “I don’t want my taxes paying for your kid’s education/welfare/healthcare/other social assistance”. The two notions just don’t seem to mesh very well and neither does advocating for internet access abroad while moving towards restricting bandwidth at home. It’s an imperfect comparison, but it’s the best way I can sum up how it looks to me.

Streaming Killed the DVD Star (or, maybe not)

Over on Stephen’s Lighthouse, Stephen Abrams has a link to a story on a survey charting the rise of time spent going online now equaling television viewing. From this number, a conclusion is drawn that it means that Net TV (aka internet television) is a sure thing. From that, Mr. Abrams offers his own conclusion:

Sooooo, Net TV means more nails in the coffin for the DVD format. Library circ stats beware..

I can’t really address the first conclusion since I’m not privy to the entire contents of the survey. I desperately hope that they didn’t simply compare the numbers and draw a conclusion on the basis of time spent. I would hope that there is something that is not mentioned in the story but is mentioned in the survey that would convey such a fact. Other than that, all I can think is that the numbers supporting online viewership of popular television shows is somehow reason enough to develop Net TV.

When it comes to Mr. Abram’s statement, I find a lot wanting in that conclusion.

First, why does the rise of Net TV mean the demise of the DVD format? Why can’t streaming be a supplemental format to DVD/Blu Ray? You can say it is a matter of convenience, but the picture quality of a streaming movie generally doesn’t match up to DVDs or, for that matter, Blu Ray. Nor does the streaming option give the same bonus options of a DVD/Blu Ray disc, as far as I am aware. At least with a physical disc, you are not subject to the whims of internet traffic. Speaking of which…

Second, where is the infrastructure for supporting this level of streaming? It simply doesn’t exist at the moment. And there isn’t a corporate will to make it so; in fact, there is resistance to this kind of high volume traffic. (Net neutrality, anyone?) Nevermind the internet infrastructure that exists in the rural areas of the United States (or lack thereof), but you can make the same case even for populated areas of the world. It simply doesn’t exist. DVD/Blu Ray circulation statistics may go down for areas in which the populations can (1) afford the streaming service, (2) afford the internet service to support this, and (3) afford the computers/equipment required to run all this, but it’s going to be slow going for the less affluent areas. While I would concede that the demise of the DVD might be prolonged, I can see the emergence of an ‘entertainment divide’ between those that can afford such equipment and services and those who can afford lesser versions.

Third, and for the sake of ‘library traditionalists’, why would the demise of the DVD/Blu Ray necessarily a bad thing? It gets libraries out of the so-called ‘infotainment’ business and re-allocates those resources back towards promoting literacies and information evaluation instruction. You can easily annex the argument that libraries shouldn’t be in the entertainment business as justification for the difference in circulation statistics due to falling DVD borrowing. Call it an experiment, call it a phase, or whatever you want, declare it over, and then move on to working to promote literacy, education, or other core value you want to subscribe to.

(That is, of course, unless we can find a way to act as a middleman to stream video to library users ourselves. But I digress.)

The author of the Fast Company article says that Net TV is coming as if it was marching down the street right now waiting for you to run to the curb to greet it. While I am certain it is going to be developed, it is a combined matter of timing and implementation that requires a number of people (read: corporations) to come to the table. It is not impossible, but like one of the cryptic Magic 8 Balls answers, this one seems to be coming up as “Ask Again Later”. Personally, I think it will be with us in the next five years, but on a limited by bandwidth basis. I hope I’m wrong, but under the current conditions, it looks like a bit grim.

This might be more nails for the DVD coffin, but it looks like the coffin is awfully big.