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<nettime> The Economist: Geolocation
Soenke Zehle on Tue, 14 Aug 2001 17:37:41 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> The Economist: Geolocation


 

Geography and the net
Putting it in its place
Aug 9th 2001 
>From The Economist print edition

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. ³This², he says, ³is the web.² 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, ³the idea that the Internet
liberates you from geography is a myth².

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 ³server farms², 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 ³managed hosting²
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 users.


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 ³heavy² 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 ³heavy² 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 ³edges² 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 ³geolocation² 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 ³father of the Internet², 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. ³If every jurisdiction in the world insisted on some form
of filtering for its particular geographic territory, the web would stop
functioning,² 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, ³the notion that governments can't regulate hangs upon a
particular architecture of the Net.² 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 ³location-based services² 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,
³reassert geography on the Internet.²

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.


Copyright © 2001 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights
reserved.



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