The U.S. Wide Web

Where'd the rest of the world go?


David Break
September 2, 1996 1:29PM (UTC)

On the Internet, it's almost as easy to reach, say, Estonia as it is to e-mail your boss. In fact, physical locations become largely invisible and nearly irrelevant. The only way to judge what country a Web page is coming from (if it doesn't tell you) is to see if its address ends with a country code -- if it ends in .com or .org, it could be located anywhere.

When the Web's explosive growth first began, I therefore hoped it might develop a truly international flavor: The world could discover what the U.S. was thinking, and Americans might learn to look beyond their borders. It hasn't turned out that way.

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The Internet, it seems, cannot overcome decades of American parochialism overnight. More than half of all Web sites are run from the U.S.. And discouragingly many of them either don't know that the rest of the world could be reading their pages, or don't seem to give a damn.

Of course, plenty of pages are unlikely to be relevant to a non-American; there's no need to keep the rest of the world in mind when putting Iowa Farmer Today online. But there are far too many sites that needlessly make non-Americans feel like second-class citizens when we visit.

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The most obviously parochial feature of American Web sites is their language. Of course, most Internet users even outside the U.S. can read some English. But why should they have to when they are looking at information from major multinational companies?

Dell, which sells computers around the world, appears to have an impressive list of countries supported on its site. Follow the link to, say, Dell Poland and you find a branch-office address and the message (in English), "No matter where you are, Dell answers are customized for you." That's it.

I can almost understand why Dell's site is so limited; it takes time to translate spec sheets and publish local prices (though this doesn't seem to have been too much of a problem for
Gateway 2000 to handle).

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Search engines, though, don't have that excuse, and their services, by their very nature, are relevant to every Web user. Not much text needs translating initially -- just instructions on how to refine searches and how to add sites. But look at Altavista, Webcrawler, Infoseek or indeed almost every popular search site -- it seems they can't be bothered.

Altavista has some excuse, as it only left the R&D labs and went commercial in early May. Infoseek, though, has been around since 1994, and despite getting around 20 percent of its traffic from outside the US, it is still cagey about its international plans -- it is "looking closely" at localization as a "long-term direction," beginning with German, French and Spanish. Most search sites have said that they haven't gone international yet because they're waiting until they could offer a "full-quality experience." Considering the standard of quality of so many Web site launches, it is hard to take this seriously as an excuse.

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The devil is in the details

As a native English speaker, while my heart goes out to those less fortunate, the language barrier isn't such a big deal to me. But I am bothered by a host of other unnecessary irritations. A site like
Macromedia
wants me to register my personal details. Fine -- but the software doesn't let me through until I give it a state (London, U.K. isn't in a state). I have a problem remembering my Firefly user ID; the web page tells me to call 1-888-HELP-FLY. Fine -- but you can't call 800 or 888 numbers most places outside the U.S. without a calling card, and non-American telephones don't have those handy letters over each number to decipher that number.

I also can't help bridling at the way American Internet addresses are handled. People and services from every other country have to identify their origins -- only American universities are .edu, and all American companies are .com. Just as North America grabbed the "1" area code with telephones, it has grabbed the best virtual addresses, too.

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This isn't a wholly petty complaint: If American companies that don't trade internationally took ".co.us" addresses, there'd be more room in the ".com" top-level domain for the multinationals that really need it. Unfortunately, every commercial organization wants to be a .com now, and for good reason -- that's what Web users expect. If you type just a site name into Netscape's latest browser, it'll even fill in the "http://www." and ".com" for you. Of course, if you want to find Le Monde by typing in "lemonde," you are out of luck -- it's "http://www.lemonde.fr".

If I were one of the five or six people who want to buy things online, I'd be even more frustrated. Do I want to use Netscape or Microsoft's browsers to transmit my credit card information? Not with the easily crackable export-only encryption software we are supposed to use. Even when the U.S. government stops trying to limit the export of effective encryption for commerce, and even if widely accepted methods of electronic payment existed, non-Americans might find it difficult to use them. Why? Because the leading ones are based around credit cards, and outside the U.S., many people don't have them. As of the fourth quarter of 1995, there were 252.9 million Visa cards issued in the U.S., and only 89.3 million in all of Europe (though the market there is growing fast).

And, of course, all too many Web sites have been designed with bandwidth-gobbling graphics and tricks that we can't digest. Few American sites bother with overseas mirrors, so the transatlantic cable is often choked. Thanks to inefficient telecommunications regimes abroad, leased line bandwidth tends to be limited, modems are more costly (so surfers don't
have the latest technology) and phone and online access bills are higher.

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Don't waste my time

If I know that a site or page is not likely to contain anything of interest to me, I'll skip it. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is what Web directories should do, but most of them are written with Americans in mind, so they don't warn you when a site is U.S.-oriented.

One of the most frequently used traffic-builders on the Web is to offer prizes, but many of these are only available to North Americans, and this fact is usually buried in the terms and conditions. Take Riddler: it's fun to play their interactive games (though many of them rely on knowledge of American trivia), but it would be even more fun if, like Americans, I had a chance to win one of their headline prizes. When I looked last, three of the four most valuable prizes (http://www.riddler.com/newprizes.html) were only available in the U.S.A.

The Automated Weather Source Online sounds like a great idea -- real time weather for my neighborhood -- and it even has a globe on its home page. But of course all of its information comes from TV stations in the U.S. In fact, too many of the best toys are American-only -- all those interactive maps and telephone directories, for example. Take a look at the 17 "headline" links in Yahoo's Entertainment: Cool Links -- six are clearly predominantly for Americans.

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Lycos Road Map calls itself "Street Maps of the Real World" -- but it only handles the U.S. E*Span's "Online Employment Connection" doesn't appear to connect to anywhere outside the U.S. And Hotwired's Netizen is almost exclusively about American politics (though Wired and Hotwired both seem to believe that being "on the Internet" can allow you to transcend your national identity).

Agent-based technology -- which tracks your interests and leads you to things you want to see -- is hot today. For it to work, though, the agents have to understand that not everyone is an American. Andersen Consulting, which has offices worldwide, has unveiled Waldo the Web Wizard, which claims it will
lead you to sites of interest to you based on demographic information you give it. Unfortunately, it is bound to draw the wrong conclusions from the
questions it asks because it assumes you are American -- for example, it asks what kind of car you have, though a substantial proportion of non-Americans don't have a car at all.

Having had my time wasted so many times, I rarely bother to investigate most of the so-called "cool" sites I hear about, with interactive maps, telephone directories and other treats -- I know I'm bound to be disappointed.


All the news that's American

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You'd think news delivery on the Web, at least, demands a global perspective -- but it hasn't turned out that way. Pointcast, nifty though it is, is utterly parochial so far. The weather is American, the industry and company news is almost entirely American, and the main headline news starts with the "national" and (U.S.) political news -- downloaded whether you want it or not. Reuters New Media, Pointcast's chief source, has a global news operation. But Elisa Nakata, Pointcast's Director of International Market Development, explains that the present Pointcast has been aimed squarely at the U.S. market; any overseas users are just a bonus. While she says she hopes that Americans will develop a taste for news from local sources around the world, there hasn't been much demand for that to date;
but she gets several hundred inquiries every month from foreigners demanding news that speaks to them.

Even when a news organization hypes its "global" image, it often fails to deliver when it comes to the Web. CNN is a good example. It has plenty of coverage from around the world, but its content on the Web echoes its priorities in the U.S. -- the first "front page" stories are usually American, and even its international stories echo CNN's American bias (Olympic games stories were largely about American atheletes, for example).

Microsoft competes in countries all over the world, so you might expect a global reach from its news site at MSNBC, but both of Microsoft's first forays into Web publishing -- MSNBC and Slate -- are strictly American.


Why should you care?

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The lack of interest most American Web sites display towards the rest of the world is at least partially understandable. One survey says that only 16 percent of Internet users live outside North America at the moment. Nearly all of the research on Net demographics to date concentrates on the American Internet-using population, making it difficult to figure out how much money the rest of us might want to spend. But you don't have to believe in Nicholas Negroponte's absurd figure of a billion Internet users by the year 2000 to realize that North America won't have the Web to itself forever -- the number of Internet hosts in Europe grew by 17 percent just from April to June this year.

What little Web advertising there is to date is almost entirely U.S.-funded and aimed at Americans, so it's not too surprising that attention is focused there, too. But even if you aren't interested in overseas consumers today, you might be tomorrow. If an early-adopting Frenchman visits your site today and goes away disappointed, he might never come back to see if you've added some content he is interested in, in a language he understands. And when millions of French people one day start looking at, say, Webs D'Or, guess what? Your site won't be on their hotlist.


A Happy Ending?

Although things look pretty grim at the moment, there are signs that at long last some of the bigger companies are starting to "get it." Lycos plans a German service with a partner organization, Bertelsmann AG, and in 1997 will roll out an ambitious service that will allow Western European users to look for Web pages across the world, or only those in their own language, and will translate the most popular search terms. Pointcast may be totally American now, but it has always planned local versions for other countries.

Some sites are already showing progress. In April, Yahoo! launched Yahoo! Japan. It recognized that Japanese browsers want to find information about their government's sites in their own language and under "government," not Regional:Countries:Japan:Government. Yahoos covering the U.K., Germany and France are due before the end of the year. YelloWeb" already has a European directory in six languages.

In fact, most of the major sites I contacted claimed that they planned local-language versions of their sites or services in the next few months. But in the case of companies like Riddler, localization of the subjects covered will have to follow later -- for a time, puzzled Italians will still have to answer trivia questions about Delta Burke and Ray Walston.

It's easy to forget that wide Web use is less than two years old, and most organizations on the Web have been moving so fast they haven't had time to stop and take stock. I don't expect amateur Web sites to change, but larger organizations are beginning to wake up to the big world. Who knows? In a year's time, the parochialism of much of the Web may be just a bad memory. I'll believe it when I see it.


David Break

David Brake is the net editor of New Scientist and Webmaster of New Scientist's Planet Science. He was born in the U.S., grew up Canadian and has now settled in Britain.

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