Geolocation and A Bordered Cyberspace

By Eric Goldman

I recently gave a talk on the general theme of the future of e-commerce, and I was allowed to take the topic in any direction. I decided to talk a little about the propagation of geolocation technology and its consequences for a borderless Internet. My notes from the talk:


A constant problem in Cyberlaw: the difficulties of authenticating users for age and geography. With respect to geography, in the mid-1990s, there was a strong belief that cyberspace was borderless. Examples:

* John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

* 1997: ALA v. Pataki, where a state anti-Internet porn law (a baby CDA) was struck down as violating the dormant commerce clause. In that case, Judge Preska said: “Geography is a virtually meaningless construct on the Internet.”

But there are ways to restore geographic borders to the purportedly borderless Internet:

1) Ask users to self-report. Users may want to self-report geography, especially in the e-commerce context where they want physical goods delivered or need to report their address to authorize a credit card purchase. But the law could force online actors to compel users to self-report geography and then act on the reported information. Examples:

* LICRA v. Yahoo. The French court envisioned that Yahoo could do 90% effective geographic authentication through a combination of IP address analysis and user self-reporting if Yahoo popped up windows asking users to self-report before being allowed to access the website.

* Alaska SB 140, an anti-adware law. To combat pop-up ads, the statute requires software vendors to display pop-up windows asking users to self-report geography.

A world with compelled requests for user self-reporting of geography would be a pop-up filled world constantly asking “where are you now? where are you now?” [see the analogous Verizon ad campaign] This makes user self-reporting undesirable, in addition to being unreliable.

2) IP address analysis. IP addresses are allocated on an International scheme. Yahoo used this scheme to display local ads, a fact noted in the LICRA court. IP address analysis can be more regional; for example, Google does geo-targeting on a more granular basis. Ex: if I search for “mercedes” in Google, I get local Mercedes dealers in the Bay Area. But IP address analysis is incomplete/imperfect.

So if the only geographic authentication tools were IP address analysis or user self-reporting, the Internet would remain more borderless than bordered. However…

3) Geolocation technology. In the future, Internet access devices will be coupled with GPS technology that will automatically report user geography. For example, many mobile phones already have GPS technology in them, and consumers use other mobile devices (e.g., Blackberries) that have geolocation technology. Inevitably, the boundaries between computers and these geolocated mobile access devices will dissolve, meaning that Internet access devices will be geolocated and will automatically self-report user geography as part of interacting with other online actors.

A geolocated Internet will have some benefits. Most obviously, ads can be geographically targeted in ways that can help consumers (i.e., a driver searching for gas can get ads from nearby gas stations). It will also enable other localized content where that matters (weather, directions, location of friends).

But a geolocated Internet will also enable governments to force online actors to “honor” the geographic information. Thus, states could legitimately enact state-specific laws and require online actors to customize their offerings for state residents. Governments could also use the geolocation information to created walled environments, including more highly filtered/screened content. We’ve already seen this in China and some other countries. In these situations, Internet users will have very different Internet experiences based on their geography. Thus, a geolocated Internet should contribute to the demise the Internet utopianism. Instead of bringing people together over a borderless network, a geolocated world reenables borders that will keep us further apart.