Erecting digital walls

c: | f: /

The internet operates without national boundaries. Countries and governmments operate within them. They see this as a problem. Here’s why.

Countries have borders that define where one jurisdiction ends and another begins. Wars have been fought – and continue to do so – over where those boundaries lie and who owns the piece of land either side. War is profitable, after all.

The internet in all its glory doesn’t adhere to this model. It was never designed to respect laws and governance, it was simply a mechanism to efficiently transmit information from A to B, irrespective of location. When it dawned on people that it was more than just a tool for geeks and students, and that business could be conducted across the wires, the lawyers woke up. The governments pricked up their ears.

Then they began to fight for control. And have been doing so ever since.

The internet highway or… not my way

The problem is twofold: money and power. In times gone by, if somebody wanted some land owned by someone else, they tooled up and tried to take it by force. In a distributed system such as the internet, that’s like playing whack-a-mole, and is not going to work without legislation. So businesses have been scrambling for decades to find a way to restrict data transfer and involve governments to impose their will, knowing full well that those controlling the flow of information have the power to make money.

Look at the DMCA and its attempts to stop people sharing a movie clip. The laughable porn filter to stop anyone in the UK accessing adult-oriented content “by accident”. The Chinese government (among others) restricting search engine content to its citizens. And the most insidious of all content filters: geo-blocking.

Geo-whatnow?

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Somebody figured that, while the internet itself is distributed, the computers upon which the information is stored are physical. Despite assigning whimsical names like The Cloud – implying information is somehow floating a few miles above our heads – data is stored on physical machines in physical locations within physical territorial boundaries. Examples:

  • The Facebook post or Instagram image you just added to your timeline? Stored in Ireland. Or Hawaii. Or wherever your closest tax haven happens to be that made a deal with Zuckerberg. It’s more than likely offloaded to someone else in another jurisdiction for archive when no longer “now” enough to be of immediate relevance.
  • This website? Any website? A collection of bits and bytes stored on a server in a physical location.
  • Your computer? Your handheld device? That physical piece of kit is connected to the internet – possibly over the airwaves. How? Through an access point; a physical server in a physical location, usually your ISP or mobile operator.

When you connect to an access point, you are assigned a unique – often temporary – address. Every click, tap, swipe that sends information through the access point is tagged with that address. Those addresses are pre-determined – geographically – because their distribution is tightly controlled.

When operating an access point, applications are made by that company to the governing body, and a range of unique addresses are assigned to the company as an available pool. As a service provider, the owner of the access point can then dish them out when someone connects to their network, which avoids collisions with two devices having the same address.

So far so good. Except for one thing. Since any company knows which physical location/authority/body issued that address due to the distribution of addresses being well-known, when you make a request to that company’s content, they can look at your request and make a decision based on where you accessed their content from. Permit some of it? All of it? Block some or all of it? It’s entirely up to them.

This creates an opportunity to control the flow of information. Think only dictatorships control what you can and can’t look at? Think again.

My information, my rules

While Donald Trump is busy trying to turn the US into the world’s largest penitentiary with a physical wall around its borders, corporations and governments have been silently erecting virtual borders wherever the hell they like. Around a single server. Around a group of servers. An entire State. A country.

Take this example: I had to help chase some stocks and shares from a company whose fund had been bought out by an American corporation. I’m over here in the UK. All the information in all the FAQs on the stocks company website said that I had to make a formal request to the State of Ohio via their website, since that’s where the funds were being held. I clicked the link to obtain the form I needed to complete.

Nada.

Just a spinning icon then a timeout: page cannot be displayed.

Every device, every browser, every search result link: the same. No reason given. Just a flat refusal to deliver the content. ohio.gov didn’t exist. Therefore I couldn’t get the information.

I could reach neighbouring states just fine. I could even reach delaware.gov, which is in Ohio. Just not the main website that had the information I needed. Why? Because I did not visit from an American internet address. They seem to actively block everyone who visits from outside.

Realising this, I started my VPN. Chose a server in America as my “home” location. Five seconds later I visited ohio.gov. Boom, there it was. I could get the information I needed, download the form and send it off.

Geo-blocking ramifications

As well as the situation outlined above, such ludicrous rules have other real-world consequences, for example:

  • Ex-pats living in other countries are restricted from accessing content from their home country – even YouTube videos that have been geo-coded.
  • People on holiday – if I visit France and type in google.com I’m redirected to google.fr automatically and without my wishes. All my search results are in French.
  • Small businesses or international companies can be locked out of accessing content, making “free market” competition (using the term loosely here, as it’s anything but) difficult.

Of course, the corporations blame fringe groups. It’s the copyright pirates. It’s the terrorists. It’s the hackers. It’s for protecting user rights. It’s for the children.

No, it isn’t. It’s for power and profit, pure and simple. Repeat after me: Down with Geo-blocking! Down with geo-blocking!

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