• 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.

Interest in geolocation soared after last November’s ruling by a French judge requiring Yahoo!, an Internet portal, to ban the auction and sale of Nazi memorabilia over the Internet to users in France. The ruling was significant because it covered sales to French users even from Yahoo!’s websites located in other countries. The implication is that to avoid breaking French law, websites around the world where such items are sold must prevent French users from gaining access — and geolocation technology allows them to do just that. Of course, the technology is far from perfect; a panel of experts, including Vinton Cerf, the networking guru who is known as the “father of the Internet”, advised the judge that determining an individual user’s country of origin was unlikely to be possible more than 90% of the time. But all borders are slightly porous, and the French judge decided that 90% was good enough.

Rather than adopt geolocation technology, Yahoo! responded by banning the auction of Nazi items across all of its sites, and says it has no plans to reinstate them. But it is challenging the ruling in order to avoid having other such restrictions placed on its content by other jurisdictions. The company, which is based in America, has asked a federal court in San Jose to declare the French ruling unenforceable in the United States. (Ironically, Yahoo! said last month that it would begin using Akamai’s geolocation technology to target advertising and other content.)

Critics of the French ruling agree that it would set a dangerous precedent, by allowing one country to interfere with freedom of speech across the entire Internet. “If every jurisdiction in the world insisted on some form of filtering for its particular geographic territory, the web would stop functioning,” Mr Cerf declared. Stanton McCandlish of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a pressure group, says he expects other governments to adopt geolocation and other similar techniques to balkanise the Internet in coming years. But he notes that geolocation is merely the latest example in a growing trend to impose local controls on the Internet. China, for example, already filters all Internet traffic flowing into and out of the country in order to prevent its citizens from accessing particular websites.

At the same time, the French ruling is regarded in some quarters as a logical and pragmatic way forward for Internet regulation; in the real world, after all, multinational firms are used to operating under different laws in different countries. According to Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor, “the notion that governments can’t regulate hangs upon a particular architecture of the Net.” As the Internet’s architecture changes and becomes more complex, with the addition of services like filtering and geolocation, the idea that the Internet is beyond the reach of local laws and government regulation looks less and less tenable.

The Revenge of Geography

So much for the death of geography. And determining the location of Internet users seems likely to become even more commonplace, and even more accurate, with the rise of wireless Internet devices such as smart phones. Already, the first “location-based services” have been launched, capable of sending text messages to mobile-phone users in particular network cells. More accurate positioning will be possible in future using a number of other techniques, such as the satellite-based Global Positioning System. Advertisers are rubbing their hands at the prospect of being able to send precisely targeted offers to people near particular shops, or inside a sports arena, though privacy concerns may yet scupper their plans. Less annoyingly, users of smart phones may choose to call up location-specific information, such as maps or traffic updates, or to locate a nearby restaurant. According to a recent estimate from Analysys, a telecoms consultancy, global revenues from location-based services will reach $18 billion by 2006 — a figure that is regarded as conservative by many in the industry.

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