Vandaele Capital

The Not So Global Internet.

The not so global Internet: How trying to access Internet and shopping from around the world is not equal in all places.

If there’s something we, the increasingly tech-savvy and overwhelmingly globalized generation love to claim as truly ours…well, this is none other than the Web. Serving as an extension to everything “real life” related, it has become our common virtual property. As such, we believe it to be shared by each and everyone of us on common grounds – freely, in a totally open manner without any obstructions. In short, you and me both view it as a utopia driven by user equality.

Bad news. Because sadly this is not the case at all. No matter how much of an open platform we want our Internet to be, there is still a tangible disparity in many aspects. Country policies keeping users from proper Web access such as the Great Firewall in China or Iran’s government activities in the last few years; region-specific job opportunities like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (only eligible for US residents); numerous shopping restrictions set by retailers and online marketplaces (Amazon Prime)…Our global Internet is actually painfully segmented and surprisingly unequal on many occassions.

How does it happen so? As a technological phenomenon, there is not a unanimous “wrongdoer”, whereas the “victims” are clear – the users as both netizens and consumers, depending on the situation.

We can divide this inequality in two general groups – a) disparity imposed by government activities (Internet access restrictions) and b) inequality promoted by a company policy (geo-locked shipping, various prices in line with different regions and many others). Let’s take a quick look at some examples of how the Internet can easily become not as global as we would want it to be.

The Argentinian case: Controlled online shopping & heavy taxes

What the Argentinian government did around the beginning of last year is a flawless example of a consumer shutdown. The background story here is that Argentina suffered from a heavy case of exhausted foreign reserves (in other words: severe dollar shortages). With foreign capital fleeing and a registered 30% drop in the country’s reserves of hard currencies in 2013, as reported by the BBC, the officials decided on something really crazy. Basically, they imposed unearthly taxes on online purchases.

Argentinian customers buying goods on online marketplaces such as eBay or Amazon were allowed to purchase items for up to $25 without paying a tax. Anything above that limit was punished with a 50% tax on each item bought from a global marketplace. On top of that, a 35% tariff was imposed on any credit card transactions conducted abroad. As if this was not enough, things were further made complicated, as products shipped to Argentina were no longer delivered to the customer’s home address. Instead, anyone buying anything from eBay or Amazon was required to take a trip to the customs office – without exclusions.

Ludicrous taxes, controlled shopping environment and forcing your residents to wait at least few hours in order to receive any product they ordered online…This is a small guide on how to create a total consumer fiasco for your resident and exacerbate the global Internet disparity.

While disparity between leading consumer destinations (US, Canada, Australia, Europe) and Third-world countries has become something like an unspoken rule even in the waters of the Internet, there are surprising levels of price inequalities found in less expected places – the USA and Australia.

You would think that both countries would stand on equal grounds when it comes to online shopping prices, right? Well, seems like things don’t look that way. Flashback to a public outrage during April last year, when “Choice” – an Australian consumer watchdog voiced a staggering realization: the same pair of jeans was 60% more expensive in the Land Down Under in comparison with the price for US online buyers. It became apparent that Argentina’s nightmarish taxes suddenly had a contestant in the face of such price framing, all the more thriving in digital marketplaces.

Amazon Prime’s not-so-prime subscription model

Amazon Prime – a prominent example of shopping restrictions come true, is not only still unavailable throughout the majority of the world, it even faced some puzzlement coming from European users. Last year Prime increased its prices for European subscribers with more than 50% – UK users had to pay £79 instead of £49, whereas German buyers had to shell out €49 in comparison with the previous €29. The reason was the introduction of the video-streaming service Lovefilm into Prime’s catalog.

Where’s the inequality part here? Well, besides that it took so long for Amazon Prime to enter European grounds, the same bundle experienced no price hike whatsoever in the US. One could ironically note that at least some Europeans got to experience the pleasure of having Prime around. After all, the service is still pretty region-sensitive and Amazon hasn’t decided to put it forward to other online buyers across the world.

Rigging Internet access in times of social unrest

Closing in on the conclusion of this post, let’s take a break from consumer hardships and focus on something that has become prevalent in recent years. Internet has become an integral part of protests and widespread citizen activities. Social media, livestreams and various other Web-powered methods of spreading information are a rule, but so are government shutdowns of Internet access and heavy-handed approach towards Web availability as a whole.

There are extensive examples ranging from the permanent block of the Great Firewall of China to more “occasional” restrictions such as how Turkish prime minister Erdogan limited access to Twitter amongst anti-government protests. Journalists, citizens and activists in many territories around the world face fierce obstructions in freely accessing the Internet.

Be it government restrictions or rules formulated by corporate entities, there is a sad realization present throughout all of this: Internet is surely not as free, equal and thoroughly available as we deem it to be. Sure, there has been a slow improvement of the situation and the Web defragmentation is in its early execution stages, but there’s much more to be wanted (and expected). Let’s hope we will finally be able to see everyone standing on as close to “equal grounds” as possible.


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