Geographic tracking raises opportunities, fears

New technology that can pinpoint the physical location of Web surfers is creating opportunities for online merchants and advertisers but could signal new restrictions on the free-wheeling Internet.

New technology that can pinpoint the physical location of Web surfers is creating opportunities for online merchants and advertisers but could signal new restrictions on the free-wheeling Internet.

So-called geotracking techniques that trace Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which are used to route signals over the Web to an individual’s computer, can help Web sites and advertisers target audiences in different geographic regions. For example, a traditional retailer such as Banana Republic could hawk swimming suits to Web visitors from Los Angeles as it pushes parkas to online shoppers from New York.

But if this technology offers greater efficiencies and new opportunities for online businesses, bringing physical boundaries into the largely borderless world of cyberspace raises several delicate questions. Net users worried about online privacy may balk at technology that might one day reveal their street addresses to marketers. But for governments watching their sovereignty erode online, the chance to erect virtual walls may be too tempting to pass up.

“If it does become technically feasible to limit access by country, than it does seem to take away from the global reach of the Internet,” said Andrew Shen, a policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy research group.

Quova, a San Francisco-based Web marketing company, has developed technology to blur these lines.

The company set out in January to scan the Net’s 4.2 billion IP addresses. The data-gathering project netted Quova a detailed physical map of the Internet. It is using the information to launch a new service later this year, dubbed GeoPoint, which the company says will target advertising to online audiences based on location.

“In the offline world, geography is so pervasive; depending on what area you’re in, it determines what products you’ll sell. Yet in the online world there’s no element of geography,” said Rajat Bhargava, founder of Quova, which is backed by Softbank and IDG Ventures.

With GeoPoint, Quova joins a growing number of Net advertisers that hope to tempt marketers with the promise of pinpointing customers who live or work within a particular country, state, city and even ZIP code.

Privacy advocates are looking at the ability of companies such as Quova to trace a Net user to a physical location. Beyond privacy, however, geotracking raises significant regulatory questions for online commerce, taxation, legal jurisdiction, online broadcasting rights and a host of other policy issues that have traditionally depended on borders.

Geotracking technologies have largely flown below the radar of regulators, but they are beginning to draw notice. For example, a technology panel next week is expected to issue a report to a French court saying techniques are available for stopping a large percentage of Net users in France from using a Yahoo auction site in the United States. Yahoo has argued that blocking French customers from viewing Nazi paraphernalia banned in that country was not feasible on the Web.

“Yahoo is basically saying they can’t block French visitors from their site. But as Quova (and others) show, the majority of the time, you can block information coming from geographical areas,” said Richard Smith, chief technology officer at the Privacy Foundation.

“Geographic blocking is sort of inevitable…for such instances as blocking online casinos and political messages in China. How prevalent it will be is the question.”

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Author: Stefanie Olsen

News Service: CNET News.com

URL: http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-200-3424168.html?tag=st.ne.1002.bgif.ni

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