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Geolocation
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Geolocation - How to geographically locate an IP Address

PIA03377_120Since all internet IP addresses are unique and every owner and provider is officially  registered, it should be possible to geographically locate any PC or server simply by it’s IP address - at least in theory. One Problem is that IP address ranges are administered by several hundred regional institutions, and it would not be very practical to query each of them directly. Fortunately some companies have specialized in collecting IP Address range information from all over the world. They are selling this information in the form of consolidated databases that are easily integrated into any webserver for the purpose of a fast lookup of a country, region, city or ISP information. Accuracy of these databases is low, however, ranging from 80 to 97%, according to their own claims. As an example, our server, located in Berlin, Germany, is believed to reside in the city of Mianyang (China) by one of the most popular databases, which sheds some doubt on these claims. Large internet service providers, such as AOL, are complicating the matter even further because they authentify all users on US servers and hand out IP addresses from their US address pool, no matter where a user dials in from.

Don’t think of geolocation as gimmickry, however. Many web servers are using it already today in order to display content automatically in the visitor’s local language  (Google does it Germany), give regional search engine results (AskJeeves), to present modified pages in specific countries, in order to comply with local law (Movielink), limiting music delivery to US citizens (Musicmatch), to prevent forgery (PayPal), for marketing purposes (Digital Envoy, Quova, Akamai), during web log analysis (“where do my visitors come from?”), or simply for the purpose of brutal censorship (China).

 

There are rumours that even the American music industry is using geographic location techniques to analyze p2p filesharing networks for regional popularity of music, which is of value for marketing purposes. A US-Patent granted to Digital Envoy is also highly disputed, which contains little more than the banality of doing nslookup and whois with the purpose of locating an IP address.

As you see, this technology is highly questionable and completely contradictory to the vision of the internet as a global village. Quite a few people will heavily dislike personalized presentation of web content and feel patronized. Legal problems might arise if it cannot be proved beyond doubt which version of a web page has been shown to a specific visitor, or which terms of trade should apply if, during a business trip to Dubai, an American businessman accepts the Arabic version of an internet contract with a US company.

As soon as the technical feasibility of geological IP address location is fully realized outside the internet community, people will inevitably call for legal action. This could be for the purpose of defence against child pornography or any other illegal content. Every paper-based publication is, and always has been, subject to local law and regulations of all sorts. The only barrier against extending these regulations to internet publications has been the global nature of the internet and the impossibility to localize it. Obviously, this may change soon but if it does, this would mean nothing less than the end of the internet as we know it. Very few webmasters would be able or willing to keep their sites fully compliant to each and every of the permanently changing local laws in more than 193 countries and numerous regions. The fact that more and more people are already withdrawing their private homepages today because they are no longer willing to take the risk of being sued for minor mistakes should be taken as a serious alarm signal because smaller companies, non-profit organizations and third-world participants will be the next victims if this trend continues.

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