Digital Segregation

If you live in the so called 3rd world countries, you often come across media that is not available for your location. Every time I saw those, I thought of Tim Berner-Lee's Internet and what it has become. Everybody that is not profiting from the business decision around these artificial boundaries hates those and, even though these are sometimes easy to work around by means of proxies in other countries, the fact of the matter is that the general public thinks it shouldn't be necessary to be a tech savy to access a simple piece of media in the web. The business argument in favor of these blocks is that the different cultures will access (and in certain cases abuse) media in different ways, so they only make it available for more civilized societies - that is to say, societies where there are legal means to punish abuses.

But, my luck, now that I am accessing media from a so called 1st world country, I come across a different type of digital segregation: now everything is available for me, as long as I have the right plugin. I want to watch movies in Netflix? I need Silverlight. I want to watch NFL games? I need Adobe Flash. Some may remember a different, but related, type of digital segregation we had back when Internet Explorer was a thing, that you would access a web page using Firefox and you would get "this content is only available on Internet Explorer". The current situation might sound similar, but it is way worse in a subtle way: the problem with these plugins for browsers is that they are available in all major browsers, so a company providing content through these plugins thinks they are serving all of the audience because they assume all of the audience is willing to install a plugin... or two, or three, or all of them. Turns out I don't: I don't install any plugin of which I cannot access the source code, for obvious reasons, so that means no Adobe Flash, no Silverlight, no bridge to Silverlight like the bunch of projects working around the lack of Silverlight in Linux using overcomplicated setups, none of that.

So how do I expect to access media if I don't have the right set of plugins you may ask? Well, ages ago, we already had a way to send a media stream through the web. I want to be able to pay for a live transmission of an NFL game, and get a password-secured high definition stream I can open from Kdenlive or MPlayer. As simple as that. And that might sound like just asking for trouble without any evident gain, but it would all make sense if you had a look at my workflow: I never sit down and watch a game; I instead put the game in a second display and do my stuff while I watch the game. Turns out this is broken for the Flash player at least in Chromium (yes, I tried) mainly because I cannot put it in full screen mode.

Oh, but the rich content applications, you may say: these companies not only provide you with a media stream but also with stuff like in-game rewind, stats, etc, with fancy menus. Well, you have a point in that there are no well established protocols to open these types of applications outside of a web browser, but in a web browser you might be able to make all of these available through Javascript. And I said you might, because I am not so sure about that: as far as I know, HTML5 is still not there with respect to Adoble Flash's ability to create complex applications, and even if it was, the development tools - which are as important as the features of any technology - are even farther.

Now, on the mobile, we have a similar situation: I was unable to book a flight through Expedia's web site because it sucks big time from a mobile. As I was filling a satisfaction survey for them, with the sole purpose of telling them their mobile site sucks, I realized they don't even expect you to use their site from a mobile: they have an app. Oh, but guess what, I don't install apps whose source is not available (except for a couple of exceptions), so I of course don't have and will never have that app installed in my cell phone. So once again, these companies have the excuse that they made an app available for your platform and you don't want to use it, so your user experience is crippled by your own choice, they don't need to fix anything from their side.

So the web that was envisioned to provide access to content in an open, global way has now turned into a world where very specific use cases - only those which the authors of the content have thought of and approved - are covered through non-standard plugins that may or may not be breaking the security of your system or your privacy.  And while most of the people that browse the web think it has evolved to a marketplace of everything you can possibly want, for people like me it seems it will never let us do what we want in terms of accessing the contents through the tools we want... let alone these Netflix suckers blocking content for people browsing from Linux.

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