• 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.

A number of firms have followed in Akamai’s footsteps by moving content to the “edges” of the Internet. But there are several other ways to speed up content delivery. One alternative approach is being taken by the Content Bridge Alliance, a group led by a California software firm called Inktomi, whose other members include AOL and Exodus. Rather than setting up a network of thousands of caches, as Akamai has done, the Content Bridge Alliance’s plan is to connect existing networks and farms together more efficiently in order to speed the flow of traffic. Yet another approach is being taken by Kontiki, a firm launched this week by veterans of Netscape. It is one of several start-ups that plan to combine Akamai’s approach with that of Napster, the infamous music-swapping service. Essentially, users’ own computers will be used as caches, so that recently accessed content can be delivered quickly when needed to other users nearby on the network.

Now, Find the Users

In parallel with all this effort to obscure the physical location of data on the Internet, there is growing interest in determining the location of its users. Laws and tax regimes are based on geography, not network topology; online merchants, for example, may be allowed to sell some products in some countries but not others. The growth in interest in “geolocation” services, which attempt to pinpoint Internet users’ locations based on their network addresses, also signals the realisation that traditional marketing techniques, based on geography, can be applied online too. Marie Alexander of Quova, a Silicon Valley geolocation firm, points out that goods and services exist in physical locations, and marketing is traditionally done on a geographical basis. Rather than messing around with fiddly (and privacy-invading) one-to-one marketing, she says, many firms are instead sticking with the old geographical approach, but taking it online. Thus different visitors to a website may be offered different products or special offers, depending on what is available nearby.

Quova’s geolocation service, called GeoPoint, is based on a continually updated database that links Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to countries, cities and even postcodes. If you visit a website that is equipped with GeoPoint software, your IP address is relayed to Quova’s servers, which look up your geographical location. This information is then used by the website to modify the page’s content based on your physical location. Quova claims to be able to identify web users’ country of origin with 98% accuracy, and their city of origin (at least for users in the United States) 85% of the time. Other firms, including Akamai, Digital Envoy, InfoSplit and NetGeo, offer similar services.

Once the user’s location is known, existing demographic databases, which have been honed over the years to reveal what kinds of people live where, can be brought into play. But although targeted advertising is the most obvious application for geolocation, it has many other uses. It can, for example, be used to determine the right language in which to present a multilingual website. E-commerce vendors and auction houses can use geolocation to prevent the sale of goods that are illegal in certain countries; online casinos can prevent users from countries where online gambling has been outlawed from gaining access; rights-management policies for music or video broadcasts, which tend to be based on geographical territories, can also be enforced. The pharmaceutical and financial-services industries, says Ms Alexander, which are subject to strict national regulation, can be confident that by offering goods and services for sale online they are staying within the law. Borders, she notes, are returning to the Internet.

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