5 November 2013

Daily Show Enforces Borders

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a bastion of political liberalism, enforces geographic sovereign borders on the cyber frontier. This border enforcement, on behalf of a well known defender of free speech and democratic values, helps to illustrate the reality of internet borders that exist today.

For those of you who do not follow it (shame on you), the Daily Show is a spirited satire of current US political news with a progressive point of view. As a fan, I am often frustrated that the show's main web site and associated video content are not available from within the UK. The show itself is broadcast on UK television and the UK-localised version of Comedy Central has (what seems to be) a reduced online library of Daily Show videos.

Daily Show videos are often used by US political campaigners to highlight current issues. When my US-resident friends upload a reference to, or attempt to embed, a Daily Show video I often find myself blocked from seeing that video because I am physically in the UK.

So it came as no surprise after I clicked a social network post linked to Upworthy, when I encountered the following all-too-familiar notice:

As you can see, the embedded content is inaccessible to those of us who are physically present in the UK.

The network notice helpfully suggests that we visit comedycentral.co.uk instead. This is a thoughtful gesture, no doubt linked to some commercial arrangement designed to drive "local" UK traffic to a localised UK portal. (Come to think of it, is it also possible that UK content is specially edited for compliance with the much more restrictive defamation laws that apply here? It would be nice if John Oliver - or anyone from the show who happens to read this - could let me know.)

But then I looked beneath the embedded content to a comment created by the team at Upworthy. I highlighted here it for your benefit:

Wow! So Upworthy has (like so many) decided to get into the Internet content smuggling business. They've given us an easy-to-use link that allows us to subvert the border being enforced by friends of Jon Stewart!

Although I do not think of myself as a smuggler, I really like the Daily Show. So like many others I decided to try clicking the link. And what did I find? This:

"Removed by the user?" BUSTED!! My best guess is that Comedy Central or Viacom (or perhaps the Sheinhardt Wig Company?) complained that the video was not properly licensed for international distribution. And down it came.

So what can we learn from all of this?

1. The ongoing race to enforce borders: Many content providers are trying to enforce geographic borders on the Internet. And many people are trying to find ways to bypass that enforcement. And the enforcers are looking for - and finding - methods to stop the bypass efforts. The border enforcement race is on.

2. The identify of border enforcers: Many of the people who enforce borders are not - themselves - sovereign states. This enforcement activity appears to be directed by content managers for their own commercial (and possibly risk management) purposes.

3. The purposes of border enforcment: Border enforcement is not just about free speech, or free trade, or free anything else. Clearly it's possible to champion left-of-center political opinion and free speech, and still find it commercially desirable to enforce Internet Borders.

4. Getting the Daily Show: We who are fans of the Daily Show in the UK (many of us are transplanted Americans) really wish that we could get an unedited direct feed of videos from the show's main website in the US. But if commercial distribution deals, or legal risk mitigation strategies, or something else about distributing content in the UK makes that difficult, then we may need to learn to live without it. We have, after all, survived for years without a ready supply of peanut butter cookies.