• Technology
  • The Economist

Geography and the Net: Putting It in Its Place

The Internet is perceived as being everywhere, all at once. But geography matters in the networked world, and now more than ever.

Brewster Kahle unlocks the cellar door of a wooden building in San Francisco’s Presidio Park. He steps inside, turns on the fluorescent lights to reveal a solid black wall of humming computers, and throws out his arm theatrically. “This”, he says, “is the web.” It is a seductive idea, but the web isn’t really housed in a single San Francisco basement. Mr Kahle’s racks of computers merely store archived copies of many of its pages which Alexa, his company, analyses to spot trends in usage. The real Internet, in contrast, is widely perceived as being everywhere, yet nowhere in particular. It is often likened to a cloud.

This perception has prompted much talk of the Internet’s ability to cross borders, break down barriers and destroy distance. On the face of it, the Internet appears to make geography obsolete. But the reality is rather more complicated. If you want a high-speed digital-subscriber line (DSL) connection, for example, geographical proximity to a telephone exchange is vital, because DSL only works over relatively short distances. Similarly, go to retrieve a large software update from an online file library, and you will probably be presented with a choice of countries from which to download it; choosing a nearby country will usually result in a faster transfer. And while running an e-business from a mountain-top sounds great, it is impractical without a fast connection or a reliable source of electricity. The supposedly seamless Internet is, in other words, constrained by the realities of geography. According to Martin Dodge of University College London, who is an expert on Internet geography, “the idea that the Internet liberates you from geography is a myth”.

What’s more, just as there are situations where the Internet’s physical geography is all too visible when it ought to be invisible, the opposite is also true. There is growing demand for the ability to determine the geographical locations of individual Internet users, in order to enforce the laws of a particular jurisdiction, target advertising, or ensure that a website pops up in the right language. These two separate challenges have spawned the development of clever tricks to obscure the physical location of data, and to determine the physical location of users — neither of which would be needed if the Internet truly meant the end of the tyranny of geography.

Down on the Farm

To see just how little the Internet resembles a cloud, it is worth taking a look at where the Internet actually is. The answer, in short, is in cities. This is partly a historical accident, says Anthony Townsend, an urban planner at the Taub Urban Research Centre at New York University. He points out that the Internet’s fibre-optic cables often piggyback on old infrastructure where a right-of-way has already been established: they are laid alongside railways and roads, or inside sewers. (Engineers installing fibre-optic cables in a New York building recently unearthed a set of pneumatic tubes, along which telegrams and mail used to be sent in the 19th century.) Building the Internet on top of existing infrastructure in this way merely reinforces real-world geography. Just as cities are often railway and shipping hubs, they are also the logical places to put network hubs and servers, the powerful computers that store and distribute data.

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