Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

BRIC Countries Face Discrimination on the Net

The Internet was supposed to make geography irrelevant. That, alas, as BRIC citizens learn, isn't true

Published: Jun 11, 2011 06:59:55 AM IST
Updated: Feb 27, 2014 05:47:25 PM IST
BRIC Countries Face Discrimination on the Net
Image: Corbis

The Internet is a vast place. Estimates place the number of Web sites in it at over 250 million, which is why you may not have noticed that a few have been subtly turning you away for a while now.

For instance 9th Sphere is a Web site solutions provider based in Ontario, Canada. Since starting in 1997, they claim to have served over 1,500 clients across the world.
You can’t access it from India.

Dragon Dictation is a highly rated voice recognition app for the Apple iPhone and iPad that allows users to speak out text and email instead of typing them. It’s also free.
You can’t download it from India.

Born This Way, pop singer and shock dresser Lady Gaga’s second studio album, was released on Amazon for a mere 99 cents, even though Apple’s iTunes sells it for $11.99.
You can’t buy it from India.

On May 12, Viacom, the media company that produces arguably the best late night TV show in the USA, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, allowed streaming video site to show it over the Internet.
You can’t view it from India.

The Internet was supposed to make national boundaries irrelevant. But increasingly, your nationality determines the access to various Internet neighbourhoods.

New World, Old Rules
Using the IP addresses of visitors, businesses started determining their location and whether to let them in.

The reason for this is that millions of visitors from countries far away arrive on these Web sites every day but never buy anything. Neither do they make lucrative target audiences in which their advertisers are interested. But the unwanted visitors still suck up bandwidth and strain the back end infrastructure. Meanwhile, criminals and spammers attack their operations more viciously and more often, forcing them to defend themselves through expensive software and hardware.

In some cases, new visitors even cart away entire parts of their goods and services, to be pirated and sold at a fraction of its true value. So the walls started to go up.

The people most affected by this are the Chinese and Indians. At around 450 million, the Chinese are the second worst source of malicious activity on the Internet after the USA, and account for 16 percent of it, according to security firm Symantec. The 100 million Indians are less than the Chinese in number, and not as strong in orchestrating attacks on Web sites. But according to Symantec, they are world leaders when it comes to spam, probably due to their better grasp over the English language.

The third and fourth spots go to Brazil and Russia. Russia is home to hardcore hackers and criminals capable of bringing down even government infrastructure. Then there is Brazil which occupies a respectable number four or five position on most key counts like Internet users, spamming and malicious activities.

Unwelcome Guests
The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), in its 2011 “Special 301” report, listed all four BRIC countries as “significant concerns” where piracy over the Internet is concerned.

Ezra Silverton, founder and president of 9th Sphere, says he isn’t bothered about hosting costs as they have fallen drastically, but the sheer number of self-promotional emails and offers he gets from the visitors is a big distraction. So he just banned India. When you visit his Web site from India you’ll see a message seeing “9th Sphere does not service your location”. As a result, his Web site now generates leads that are most likely relevant. “Our sales conversions have gone up from 2 percent to 5 percent,” he says.

But that’s not why large media companies like Hulu, YouTube and Amazon block access to emerging market visitors. In their case, it’s because under their high technology bonnets lies an old world engine — old world media company deals that still rely on geographical discrimination. So a Hollywood studio will not want its new movies released in emerging markets the same time as the US, a cable television network will not want its latest shows streamed and a music label will think offering the new album in emerging countries is inviting piracy.

“Content permission issues around music and films have always been there. But for many years, people from countries like India or China forgot about them because we weren’t buying them over the Internet. Today, when we can afford and access those, because of the rising prominence of services like Hulu and iTunes, we find those issues touching us,” says Prashant Mehta, CEO of Komli, an online ad network focussed on Asia-Pacific.

The End is Not Nigh
Though limited access to music and videos from certain countries is increasing, thanks to unimaginative media companies, banning entire countries from even seeing your Web site is probably limited to smaller businesses.

But this might be on its way out for two reasons. Internet ads are getting better at figuring out where you’re from, and how much you’re worth to advertisers. So, even a Web site that isn’t targeted specifically at, say Indians or Chinese, can serve ads tailored for them through services like Google Adwords or Komli. “We don’t show an ad for a New York-Mumbai flight to someone sitting in India,” says Mehta.

The other reason is that Google and other search engines don’t like Web sites that keep out a majority of the world’s Internet users. A case in point is a newly launched Google feature: When you try to open 9th Sphere’s Web site but are unable to do so, Google prompts you to “block all results” from the Web site.

And if enough BRIC citizens end up choosing that option, over time, ban-favouring Web sites might find themselves starved of the very thing that sustains them: Visitors. 

(This story appears in the 17 June, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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