Putting The Net In Its Place

From: J. R. Molloy (jr@shasta.com)
Date: Mon Aug 27 2001 - 01:35:27 MDT

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

The Internet's new borders
LONG, long ago in the history of the Internet-way back in February 1996-John
Perry Barlow, an Internet activist, published a "Declaration of the
Independence of Cyberspace". It was a well-meaning stunt that captured the
spirit of the time, when great hopes were pinned on the emerging medium as a
force that would encourage freedom and democracy. "Governments of the
industrial world," Mr Barlow declared, "on behalf of the future, I ask you of
the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no
sovereignty where we gather. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you
possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. Cyberspace
does not lie within your borders."

Those were the days. At the time, it was widely believed that the Internet
would help undermine authoritarian regimes, reduce governments' abilities to
levy taxes, and circumvent all kinds of local regulation. The Internet was a
parallel universe of pure data, an exciting new frontier where a lawless
freedom prevailed. But it now seems that this was simply a glorious illusion.
For it turns out that governments do, in fact, have a great deal of
sovereignty over cyberspace. The Internet is often perceived as being
everywhere yet nowhere, as free-floating as a cloud-but in fact it is subject
to geography after all, and therefore to law.

The idea that the Internet was impossible to regulate dates back to when its
architecture was far simpler than now. All sorts of new technologies have
since been bolted on to the network, to speed up the delivery of content,
protect networks from intruders, or target advertising depending on a user's
country or city of origin (see article). All of these technologies have
mundane commercial uses. But in some cases they have also provided governments
with ways to start bringing the Internet under the rule of local laws.

The same firewall and filtering technology that is used to protect corporate
networks from intrusion is also, for example, used to isolate Internet users
in China from the rest of the network. A recent report on the Internet's
impact in China by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), a
private think-tank based in Washington, DC, found that the government has been
able to limit political discourse online. Chinese citizens are encouraged to
get on the Internet, but access to overseas sites is strictly controlled, and
what users post online is closely monitored. The banned Falun Gong movement
has had its website shut down altogether. By firewalling the whole country,
China has been able to stifle the Internet's supposedly democratising
influence. "The diffusion of the Internet does not necessarily spell the
demise of authoritarian rule," the CEIP report glumly concluded. Similarly,
Singapore and Saudi Arabia filter and censor Internet content, and South Korea
has banned access to gambling websites. In Iran, it is illegal for children to
use the Internet, and access-providers are required to prevent access to
immoral or anti-Iranian material. In these countries, local standards apply,
even on the Internet.

To American cyber-libertarians, who had hoped that the Internet would spread
their free-speech gospel around the world, this is horrifying. Yahoo! is
appealing against the French decision, because it sets a precedent that would
require websites to filter their content to avoid breaking country-specific
laws. It would also have a chilling effect on free speech, since a page posted
online in one country might break the laws of another. Enforcing a judgment
against the original publisher might not be possible, but EU countries have
already agreed to enforce each other's laws under the Brussels Convention, and
there are moves afoot to extend this scheme to other countries too, at least
in the areas of civil and commercial law, under the auspices of the Hague

It is true that filtering and geolocation are not watertight, and can be
circumvented by skilled users. Filters and firewalls can be defeated by
dialling out to an overseas Internet access-provider; geolocation can be
fooled by accessing sites via another computer in another country. E-mail can
be encrypted. But while dedicated dissidents will be prepared to go to all
this trouble, many Internet users are unable to change their browsers' home
pages, let alone resort to these sorts of measures. So it seems unlikely that
the libertarian ethos of the Internet will trickle very far down in countries
with authoritarian regimes. The upshot is that local laws are already being
applied on the Internet. Old-style geographical borders are proving
surprisingly resilient.

Getting real
In some ways this is a shame, in others not. It is certainly a pity that the
Internet has not turned out to be quite the force for freedom that it once
promised to be. But in many ways, the imposition of local rules may be better
than the alternatives: no regulation at all, or a single set of rules for the
whole world. A complete lack of regulation gives a free hand to cheats and
criminals, and expecting countries with different cultural values to agree
upon even a set of lowest-common-denominator rules is unrealistic. In some
areas, maybe, such as extradition and consumer protection, some countries or
groups of countries may be able to agree on common rules. But more
controversial matters such as free speech, pornography and gambling are best
regulated locally, even if that means some countries imposing laws that
cyber-libertarians object to.

Figuring out whose laws apply will not always be easy, and thrashing all of
this out will take years. But it will be reassuring for consumers and
businesses alike to know that online transactions are governed and protected
by laws. The likely outcome is that, like shipping and aviation, the Internet
will be subject to a patchwork of overlapping regulations, with local laws
that respect local sensibilities, supplemented by higher-level rules governing
cross-border transactions and international standards. In that respect, the
rules governing the Internet will end up like those governing the physical
world. That was only to be expected. Though it is inspiring to think of the
Internet as a placeless datasphere, the Internet is part of the real world.
Like all frontiers, it was wild for a while, but policemen always show up

Putting it in its place
Aug 9th 2001
>From The Economist print edition

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.

This has led to the rise of "server farms", also known as data centres or web
hotels-vast warehouses that provide floorspace, power and network connectivity
for large numbers of computers, and which are located predominantly in urban
areas. A typical example can be found in Santa Clara, just off California's
Highway 101. It is run by Exodus Communications, a web-hosting firm which has
nine server farms in Silicon Valley and another 35 around the world. From the
outside, the farm is a deliberately nondescript building. A sophisticated
security system, with hand scanners and video cameras, keeps out unauthorised
visitors. Inside, the building resembles a jail, rather than a farm: it is
packed with row upon row of computers in locked metal cages, their fans
whirring and lights flashing. The air is filled with the deafening hum of
air-conditioning. There are no windows and few people, and the lights are
triggered by motion sensors, keeping unvisited parts of the farm in darkness.
Exodus's customers house their computers inside the metal cages, which are
supplied with power and network connections. Most of the world's biggest
websites live in buildings like this; Exodus hosts 49 of the top 100.

As if to emphasise how physical constraints apply even to virtual spaces,
server farms are still rented by the good old-fashioned square foot. According
to figures published in April by Salomon Smith Barney, worldwide server-farm
capacity is growing by 50% annually, and will reach 22m square feet by the end
of 2001, despite the demise of the dotcoms. Cage space turns out to have other
uses, too: boastful corporate logos hang from many cages, and some firms have
posted job advertisements in the hope of poaching technical staff from rivals.

The signs are that the storage of information is going to become even more
physically concentrated. One reason is the growth of "managed hosting" where,
instead of renting space on a farm for their own servers, firms rent the
computing capacity along with the power and network connectivity. In short,
they simply hand over their data, and leave running the servers to the hosting
company. As a result, there is no longer any need for customers to visit
farms, so they need not be located in metropolitan areas, where space is
limited and expensive. They can be anywhere, provided enough power and
bandwidth are available.

In practice the constraint is power. A single server farm can consume as much
power as a small airport, or four large hospitals. As a result, says Jon
Feiber of Mohr Davidow Ventures, a venture-capital firm, the logical thing to
do is to build out-of-town server farms with their own power stations. Such
farms, he suggests, could be very large indeed: perhaps a dozen would be
enough for the whole of the United States. Just such a facility, with a 24MW
gas-fired power station, is being built just outside London by iXguardian, a
British computer-services firm. It will be the largest server farm in Europe.

The combination of managed hosting and dedicated power stations means that
data will be increasingly concentrated in large farms. The rise of wireless
devices will drive this trend too: instead of storing data internally, such
devices will store information on the network and access it when needed. But
users wishing to access their data will still be spread out around the world.
So centralisation will drive demand for technology that can smooth out the
Internet's geographical lumpiness and speed the delivery of data; in short,
technology to obscure the physical location of Internet content from its

First, hide the data
One way to do this is to store copies of popular lumps of content in data
caches sprinkled around the world. The leader in this field, with over 11,000
caching servers in 62 countries, is Akamai, a firm based in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. The geographical distribution of Akamai's infrastructure is
strikingly different from that of Exodus. Broadly speaking, Akamai needs
servers near the consumers of content, whereas Exodus puts its farms near the
suppliers of content. Accordingly, Exodus has farms in North America, Europe,
Australia and Japan, but not in Africa or South America. Akamai, on the other
hand, has servers pretty much everywhere.

Akamai's customers, which include CNN and Yahoo!, are content providers who
are prepared to pay to ensure that users around the world are able to access
their sites smoothly and quickly. Normally, when you visit a web server, a
description of the page you have requested is delivered across the network.
This consists of the page's text, plus references to any graphics (or sound or
film clips) associated with it. These items are then requested by your web
browser and delivered across the network. Finally, the browser assembles all
the components and displays the page. The problem is that while the text can
be delivered quickly, the "heavy" items (such as graphics and video) are much
larger and take longer to arrive. It is these items which Akamai can help to
deliver more quickly.

It works like this. You request a web page in the usual way, and the page
description is delivered. But the references to the page's "heavy" items are
modified to fool your web browser into requesting those items from Akamai,
rather than from the original web server. Taking account of your location on
the network, and given the prevailing traffic conditions, Akamai then delivers
the heavy items from the nearest available cache, and the page pops up much
more quickly. By monitoring the demand for each item, and making more copies
available in its caches when demand rises, and fewer when demand falls,
Akamai's network can help to smooth out huge fluctuations in traffic. A
further benefit is that the customer's web server does not have to deliver the
heavy items, which reduces the load on it dramatically and makes it less
likely to collapse when faced with a sudden surge of visitors.

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.

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.

Mr Townsend notes that cities are, in a sense, vast information storage and
retrieval systems, in which different districts and neighbourhoods are
organised by activity or social group. A mobile Internet device, he suggests,
will thus become a convenient way to probe local information and services.
Location will, in effect, be used as a search parameter, to narrow down the
information presented to the user. Mobile devices, he says, "reassert
geography on the Internet."

At the moment, Internet users navigate a largely placeless datasphere. But in
future they will want location-specific information and access to their
personal data, wherever they are-and wherever it is. This will be tricky to
pull off, and impossible without taking geography explicitly into account. It
is undoubtedly true that the Internet means that the distance between two
points on the network is no longer terribly important. But where those points
are still matters very much. Distance is dying; but geography, it seems, is
still alive and kicking.


Stay hungry,

--J. R.

Useless hypotheses, etc.:
 consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego

     Everything that can happen has already happened, not just once,
     but an infinite number of times, and will continue to do so forever.
     (Everything that can happen = more than anyone can imagine.)

We won't move into a better future until we debunk religiosity, the most
regressive force now operating in society.


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