By Stephen Schenck | July 11, 2013 7:13 AM
Smartphones are supposed to connect us to the world, to keep us plugged-in to the internet no matter where we find ourselves. By and large, they do a great job at that, but every once in a while we hit a hiccup. Despite the lack of any legitimate technical reason why not, some of those 1s and 0s bombing around the internet backbone just refuse to make the trip to mobile devices.
I’m talking about placing content restrictions specifically on smartphones and tablets. It’s unnatural, anti-internet, anti-user, and I think it’s all one big load of crap.
But It Was Just There On My PC?
You ever pull up YouTube on your phone, do a quick search for a clip, and be surprised when it doesn’t show up in the results? You were just watching it on your laptop a few minutes ago, so unless someone deleted it in that short window, it should still be on the site, right? Chances are, you just got hit with a mobile content restriction.
This isn’t exclusively a YouTube problem by any means (though I’m betting that’s where many of you are going to run into it the most). The entities behind a number of online services go to some effort to ensure that certain content isn’t (easily) accessible on mobile devices.
At its heart, this is a legal issue; the sort of artificial limitation that says watching content on a computer is different from watching it on your living room TV – and both are different from watching on your phone – these things let content owners demand a number of differing rates for their products. That granularity can give these owners some valuable bargaining chips during negotiations, or allow artist more say in how their work is distributed.
The problem is, that’s just not how the internet works. Data is device-agnostic, and the trip it takes to your phone isn’t meaningfully different from the trip it takes to your laptop. If you’re able to view something just fine on one, in theory it should be just as accessible on the other. Breaking how the internet works in this manner is borderline infuriating.
And, you know: I think the providers realize just that, and are careful not to make these restrictions too obvious. For instance, with that YouTube example I gave, there’s no little asterisk at the beginning of those incomplete search results – “Some results have been omitted from this list, because screw you, smartphone user.” Well, something nicer obviously, but there absolutely should be something. Instead, users just end up confused when their search terms don’t seem to work anymore.
This isn’t only restricted to free content, either – so I’m not just being an ungrateful snob complaining about restrictions on what I’m not even paying for in the first place. Look at Spotify.
Spotify will stream all the music you want, no ads or anything, for $5 a month. At least, that’s the case if you’re using a PC. When we start talking about mobile devices, suddenly that very same service, with the very same selection of songs, costs 100% more. That’s. Flipping. Nuts.
Is it Spotify’s fault? Well… not really. Like I said, these are legal restrictions insisted upon by content holders – it no doubt got the best deals it could from the labels. But it did agree to them, and both it, as well as all those users paying their $10 a month for mobile access, are telling content providers “keep it up, we’ll pay anything.”
All For Nothing
Maybe the stupidest part about all this nonsense is that mobile content restrictions just don’t work very well. While they’re so fundamentally at odds with how the internet is supposed to function, the inherent flexibility of networks and computers often offer a simple way to work around them.
Sure, if you’re stuck working within the confines of an app that can be tricky, but if you can get your phone to look like a PC to the remote server it’s talking to, you might be in luck. With YouTube, pulling up the mobile site instead of the app won’t do you much good, but jump on over to the full desktop version, make sure you’ve got your old Flash plug-in installed, and you’re ready to rock out, restriction-free.
In this light, a cynical mind might call these restrictions some kind of tax on less capable smartphone users. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re so inclined as to set up a remote connection to your PC and just forward that Spotify audio stream on to your phone – the PC acting as a smarter-than-usual proxy – the sky’s the limit.
Sadly, I don’t think mobile content restrictions are going away any time soon. That means either learning to live with them, or learning to get smarter about side-stepping their effects.