by August 9, 2003 0 comments

Geo-Location is the science of identifying an Internet user’s physical location using his IP address or other location-specific data. Before you say, since when did IP address become location specific, let me explain. A user connects to the Internet via an ISP that assigns him an IP address. The address that the ISP gives out to the user is not any arbitrary address, but is out of a block of addresses that have been assigned to the ISP itself. In addition to that, a corporate house may lease a set of IP addresses directly, instead of getting them through an ISP. Needless to say that IP addresses assigned to one are not assigned to any other. All this is managed by

A (distributed) database is maintained, which contains name, address etc, of all the organizations that are assigned these addresses along with the blocks of IP addresses that have been assigned to each of them. This database is available in the public domain and forms the basis of geo-location. Let’s take an example. Suppose CyberNet, an ISP based in India, is assigned IP addresses in the range 192.168.X.X. When a website detects a user with the IP address, it can tell that this user is connecting via CyberNet and, thus, is (more than) likely to be from India. Now if CyberNet allocates users from Delhi IP addresses in the range 192.168.1.X to 192.168.10.X, users from Mumbai 192.168.11.X to 192.168.20.X and so on, and makes this information public, it becomes obvious 192.168. 12.207 is a user in

The implications
Websites can modify their content dynamically depending upon the location of the user, allowing them to present content in the regional language. Advertising, too, can be modified to add a more personal touch. You can have an entertainment website showing Delhi users what’s showing at PVR Priya and Mumbaikars the latest going on at Prithvi theatre, while everything else on the page will be the same.

Geo-location also helps to enforce country or region-specific laws over the Internet, something which was not possible until now due to the very nature of the medium. Thus, while users from most countries can access betting sites, these sites can choose to block users from countries like the US and China, which do not have clear betting laws. An advertisement for such technology was the ruling of a French court (around 18 months ago) directing Yahoo to prevent French users from seeing and/or buying Nazi collectible items; the sale of such material is banned in France. That Yahoo replied with a suit of its own is a different story altogether!

Another application of geo-location is to check frauds over the Internet. Experience of online merchants indicates that certain countries report a higher percentage of cases involving stolen (or fake) credit-card numbers. Patterns emerge which point more towards organized stealing originating in these countries (Ukraine, Indonesia and Malaysia are right up there) than isolated incidents. These incidents not only have an adverse effect on the reputation of the merchant (or a loss of goods/services in case it decides to refund the money to the genuine card holder) but also incur penalty from the credit-card institutions. If the number of fraudulent cases in a period goes
beyond a limit, Visa or MasterCard have even been known to cut that merchant off.

The limitations
But geo-location has its limitations. And, thankfully so, if you listen to advocates of privacy over the Internet. Going back to the example, all we found out was that the user is from Mumbai. This is not quite a personalization when you consider that we’re talking about one in almost 20 million people. Also, the information provided might be misleading–what if someone in Pune dials long-distance into the Mumbai server. He’ll get an IP address out of the Mumbai heap. Thus, geo-location information may not always be accurate, but hey, it is something. Let me put it this way, as an online merchant I’d rather have the information that the user has a 90% chance of being from India, than no information about his location at all.

To facilitate websites with easy access to this technology, many geo-location service providers have come up who run a private centralized databases mapping IP addresses to geographical locations. These databases are constructed using special algorithms to collect information from the various public databases strewn all across the Web. These providers claim to be able to pinpoint the country and city of an IP address with an accuracy of up to 98% and 85% respectively. Access to these databases is provided at a charge–a small price to pay, if you ask those utilizing this technology to the optimum. For example, Quova Inc (www.quova. com) is one of the leading geo-location companies providing it’s service to Amazon and Times Online (UK), amongst others.

Though purists are not thrilled with this technology–one of the ideas behind the Internet was having a world with no boundaries–the truth is that as governments and laws all over the world become more and more involved, geo-location is here to stay.

Kunal Dua

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