Geolocation tech slices, dices Web
Monday, July 12, 2004 Posted: 1:03 PM EDT (1703 GMT)
NEW YORK (AP) -- Type "dentist" into Google from New York, and you'll get ads for dentists in the city. Try watching a Cubs baseball game from a computer in Chicago, and you'll be stymied. Pre-existing local TV rights block the webcast.
The same technology is also being used by a British casino to keep out the Dutch and by online movie distributors to limit viewing to where it's permitted by license, namely the United States.
The World Wide Web experience is becoming less and less worldwide: What you see and what you are allowed to do these days can depend greatly on where and even who you are.
As so-called geolocation technology improves, Web sites are increasingly blocking groups of visitors and carving the Web into smaller chunks -- in some cases, down to a ZIP code or employer.
To privacy advocates like Jason Catlett, that technology can detect users' whereabouts isn't the most disturbing aspect of this trend. Rather, it's the fear that Web sites will try to mislead visitors.
A company, for instance, might show different prices when competitors visit; a political candidate might highlight crime-fighting in one area, jobs in another.
"The technical possibilities do allow a company to be two-faced or even 20-faced based on who they think is visiting," Catlett said.
Alan Davidson, associate director for the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, worries that governments will try to employ the technology to enforce their laws within artificial borders they erect. Such concerns, not entirely new, have grown with the technology's reliability, he said.
A French court considered geolocation when it directed Yahoo Inc. in 2000 to prevent French Internet users from seeing Nazi paraphernalia on its auction pages. America Online Inc. sees geolocation as one way to comply with the French Nazi ban as well as a Pennsylvania child porn law.
But for the most part, any online restrictions appear to come from commercial companies, not governments. (China and other countries that censor the Internet use filtering technologies rather than geolocation.)
In the past few months, RealNetworks Inc. began offering soccer games and movies restricted to specific countries while Art.com coded its Web site so Americans automatically see prices in dollars, Germans in euros.
Google Inc., which already had redirected foreign visitors to country-specific home pages, expanded geolocation in April to let merchants target ads by city or distance from a given address.
Here's how geolocation works:
Each computer on the Internet has a unique numeric address akin to a phone number. It's generally assigned to the user's Internet service provider, a university or a company, and a database matches such assignments to the location the network has registered.
But a company's addresses may all be registered to headquarters, though it has branch offices worldwide. An ISP like America Online may route its customers' traffic through a single gateway, making AOL users in California appear to come from Virginia...
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