Myth #21: All Internet users experience the same Internet.
Myth: The Internet is the same for everyone. Some governments might block foreign content within their countries, and some content is removed to protect copyright. But all in all, if we stay in a country with free Internet or surf on accessible websites, we are all equal citizens of the Internet and treated as such.
Busted: Most users have accepted that content they watch on YouTube, search for on Google, (#19) or get suggested on Amazon is personalized. (#22) Less tolerated and frequently reviled are targeted online advertisements that show up mostly on websites using Google Ads and Facebook. But governments and companies have developed capacities, such as redirecting traffic, filters and algorithms that can have a profound yet hard to discern impact on the way we experience the Internet.
Take for example what is known as the Great Firewall, the Chinese government’s program to control the Internet. While it does simply block certain foreign websites like those of The Economist and Le Monde, studies such as by The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto have revealed a complex structure that can also slow down and redirect access requests to websites in China and abroad, and use it for offensive purposes in DDoS attacks. Censorship usually results in frustration and protest, but it can also subconsciously alter behaviour. Critical debate is obviously stifled under heavy censorship. But if some pages just happen to load very slowly, we may avoid them, without attributing it to censorship. If our request is instead rerouted, or turned into part of a DDoS attack, we might never find out.
Another example: Companies use hardware and software to modify users’ experiences for commercial or even political reasons. Algorithms that may amplify familiar stories in our social media or search results are also part of other websites, e.g. Google Scholar. Internet service providers like Comcast (USA) and Bell Canada have been accused of illegally throttling certain Internet traffic, based on deep packet inspection that allows them to distinguish between data flows to their own services and those of their competitors and adjust access speed accordingly. (#39) Manufacturers of smartphones control how customers use apps – and through them the Internet – by making some of them harder to access or even incompatible with their operating systems. Companies also become complicit in censorship when they preemptively block user generated content perceived as illegal, or block access to their own employees’ protests over work conditions.
We already live in a fragmented Internet, with breaks occurring right through countries, users’ devices and websites, not just between them. The first step towards defragmentation is increasing awareness.
Truth: Internet service providers, governments, cloud, hardware and software companies have created walls, walled gardens, divides and bubbles that can profoundly shape our online experience, the way we interact with other users and how we learn about the world. These barriers are flexible, evolving and often hidden. They make us experience different parts of the Internet; and the same parts differently. Only awareness of barriers can help us overcome the fragmentation of our digital lives.
Source: Roya Ensafi, Philipp Winter, Abdullah Mueen, Jedidiah R. Crandall, Analyzing the Great Firewall of China Over Space and Time, Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies, 1 (2015), 61-76, doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/popets-2015-0005; Greg Goth, ISP Traffic Management: Will Innovation or Regulation Ensure Fairness?, IEEE Distributed Systems Online, 9 (2008) 9, https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/4659261.