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Commentary: Perils, promises of geolocation

Strong forces are behind the development of geolocation services to identify and segregate consumers on the Internet.

Strong forces are behind the development of geolocation services to identify and segregate consumers on the Internet.

Clearly, various government agencies, businesses and families would like to exert control over sites to limit the type of content and services available to their citizens, employees or family members.

Web site owners are naturally reluctant to

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Building fences, one by one
be placed in the role of policeman--monitoring all site visitors and providing only the content or services deemed acceptable by a country, business or family. Such a path is fraught with complexity and cost.

On the other hand, site owners do wish to have information on user demographics--including geographic location or business ties--to support their sales and marketing goals. This path leads to greater profit for the Web site. There is, in fact, an argument to be made by content owners for providing content only if a site can guarantee that it goes just to users in a particular geographic location. These financial dynamics help fuel the emergence of geolocation technologies.

While new software may make it technically possible for a company such as Yahoo to determine the physical location of each person who accesses its site, the debate remains open as to whether that company is legally responsible for restricting access to services based on physical location, or whether it is practical to do so. Can a political body such as France impose its laws on an entity that operates entirely outside of its boundaries? That question probably will have to be determined by international courts.

And is it reasonable to expect every Internet site to set up complex geographic restrictions? It isn't just a question of one country. Virtually every nation on Earth would want to place some restrictions on the information crossing its borders via the Internet. Should site owners have to track the restrictions of a huge list of countries from China to Kurdistan to Montenegro? Would they then have to worry about restrictions imposed by New York or California, by Hartford, Conn., or Bismarck, N.D.?

The software factor
Even with new software, it may not always be possible to know where Net users are located. If a person accesses a site via America Online, all the site knows is that he or she came through AOL. But AOL has access in many countries, and that person could be anywhere in the world and dialing into an AOL port. Even if AOL can tell where that consumer is, it has no reason to provide that information; it gains a business advantage by keeping that information to itself.

Location-tracking software such as Quova's GeoPoint is only one side of the equation. The other side is content-filtering software, which is also becoming increasingly sophisticated. We believe that countries, companies and even households that want to prevent access to Internet-based material that they consider objectionable should have the responsibility of filtering that content as it crosses their electronic borders.

First, though, they need to develop clear policies concerning what material they consider objectionable and to communicate those policies, including the penalties for violating them, to their residents, employees or family members. Once that is done, a corporation, for instance, can use filtering software to block material and other software to spot-check employees to see what they are accessing during business hours.

Factoring in intelligence
It's important to be intelligent in enforcing the policies. Simple blocking software such as filters that search for a list of "objectionable" words can backfire if relied upon too heavily. Companies do not want to repeat the public embarrassment that AOL experienced when it set up a system to block use of a set of "objectionable" words including "breast," only to find that it had just prevented a breast cancer victims' support group from continuing to use its service. For most business users, these policies, combined with random checks to review the sites visited by employees, will be sufficient.

Companies also need to be aware of international legal restrictions that might affect the information and services they place on their sites. While France may not be able to take effective legal action against a company that operates totally within the United States, companies with international subsidiaries need to be particularly careful about content laws abroad or risk finding some nations taking action against the company's properties there.

Companies developing sites that could benefit from the knowledge of a vistor's location may find geolocation services attractive. However, most sites need only have a registration process to gain the most critical information to support e-commerce and marketing initiatives. In the few cases in which digital rights management for distribution of proprietary content requires a more robust model, sites may wish to explore geolocation services.

Meta Group analysts Dale Kutnick, Val Sribar, William Zachmann and David Cearley contributed to this report. Visit for more analysis of key IT and e-business issues.

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