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March 07, 2007


Mark Sabec

Interesting post! It seems only a matter of time before serious legislation is brought forth to attempt to segment the Internet geographically to fit within the reach of local laws. Or, might it become an issue in a presidential campaign platform (we'll see if this issue sees the light of day in '08)? The Internet has somehow been able to remain an international space unconfined by the pressures of local laws--thus promoting free speech and spreading information internationally (at least to a greater extent than any other forum has in the past) for many nations that, due to their current regimes, may not be able to access such content or participate in such a forum. I agree with you that segmenting the Internet by region--and especially holding ISPs responsible for abiding by local laws--is a horrible idea that seems will only result in a tangled mess of litigation and international conflict. Yet I don't know how I feel about governments stepping in to intervene, either. I suppose if governments had the ability to impose their laws on their citizens on the Internet, a great deal of information, like you said, would be inaccessible to people living in non-democratic nations. Perhaps what will arise is a sort of "United Nations of the Internet"--a tribunal of sorts with diplomats from each nation that congregates to decide how best to regulate Internet content. But look at the inefficiencies of the current UN--do we really think such a system could work for the Internet?

In response to your idea of geographical awareness when browsing, I think the average consumer is already shifting to that mindset as a result of geographically-targeted advertisements. Many studies have shown advertisements to be most effective when they are targeted at individuals, which means geotargeting is key in sending successful messages to consumers. Will it change the browsing experience? It may seem like it will, but I think we, as humans, have habituated ourselves to believe the Internet is a bastion of anonymity. Thus, geotargeting--whether through advertising or content regulation--will be a minor blip on our radar. It may cause us to be more aware of our surroundings, but we will still be under the trappings of anonymity (however false they actually may be).

Fred Smith

Agreed, there are some great points here. The internet, more than any other forum in the history of mankind, is inherently international. Micromanagement of ISP's by nation's would likely lead to confusion and jurisidictional fights. On the other hand, as you note, a large international regulatory body seems equally cumbersome, and likely intrude upon the diverse national values.

Still, as we are currently seeing in the EU, it is possible to have international bodies, while still leaving many affairs to individual nations. (Or in the case of the United States, it is possible to have a federal government, while also leaving some affairs uniquely to the states). Might it be possible to implement a similar system when dealing with the Internet? Are there some forms of regulation by countries that we might be comfortable with (taxation, illegal conduct within borders in which the internet is a conduit), and other forms of regulation that we'd prefer to be handled by an international body?

Allyson W.

Should an interface always speak freely and candidly to users? Why make network communication transparent?

I'd like to brainstorm on geospatial interface design in response to the last issue you bring up about design.

What value could there be for the user if the geographic origin of online information was consistently made apparent to users?

Currently, users enter a search query, receive a list of hits, and maybe including a few geographically identifiable URLs (.co.uk), or not, (.com). When is it important to a user to see which server the desired document is stored in? When a fast download is desired, or one server is believed to be more secure than another. Users generally don't tend to care where the data comes from. Except why is it so fascinating to track the hops of packets between routers? I love downloading academic papers and choosing which university will be the lucky recipient of my data request. Why are traceroutes so appealing?

People seem to benefit from the user experience when it is enchanced with a geospatial reference. Actually, tools in general that don't alienate users from their functioning are actually well-designed. Sure, most of the time we don't want to know the inner details of the machine level language running our operating system most of the time. However, so many machines and processes that people interact with on a daily basis are almost magic, and this is not well-received by a user. As mentioned in the Aha-Moment blog, people like to know how things work, especially IT. It is almost insulting to hide the operations of a machine. Sure we coat iPods with cases and cellphones with interfaces all with the aim to blend the machines with our lives, but these objects are still machines, not people with emotions and faces as they are often crafted to appear by designers, and people are still fascinated by how they work. How could website designers (of everyday websites, not apps like Google Earth) take advantage of the human desire to understand tools and have geospatial orientation in the design of sites we interact with daily?

Although traceroutes may not be the most relevant information to bring to the user's eyes (think a scroll of hops running along your browser as you wait for the packets to roll in), could this add to the "fun" of info-searching? It certainly isn't fun to wade through heaps of hits looking for a specific statistic- could visible traceroutes make a story of the action and dull down the drudgery of searching? I feel any move to make the virtual world more like the real world will make users more comfortable with the experience. If it doesn't matter to a user where information comes from, it does matter what area it is relevant to, so I see the rise of mapping techniques in interface design (Think: this is pertinent to Iowa, bring to light Iowa. Or outside the boundaries of geography: this is relevant to the history of French authors, interface shows map of relationships between French authors).

Making the online community blind to their geographic differences can be useful especially for security reasons, but transparency isn't always the most appealing approach and can alienate users from the internet.

Dana Powers

The internet is always already regulated by local laws, despite the beliefs of wishfully ignorant internet entrepreneurs. Perhaps filtering _is_ a good idea, but only a local country can choose that policy. Which only reinforces the sovereignty of local law.

Here is a great book on the subject:
Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World
(sorry for the long link)

Identifying users by IP is actually not that hard and is done by pretty much every major internet company (for marketing as well as legal reasons).

Sophia Tu

Ally, you raise a really interesting point with your observation of user demand for knowing how technology works. There's definitely a subpopulation of people who don't want their machines to patronizingly decide what they do and don't need to know, at all levels from those who enable hidden files, to those who forego GUIs and work from the command line. On the other hand, there are many people who are just fine with their techology working like magic, so long as it works. The trick is to design tools that we understand more intuitively. The interface should be as transparent as possible, so as to avoid distracting or acting as a barrier to accessing or manipulating the information. (sidenote: check out the MIT tangible media group projects on innovative user interfaces: http://tangible.media.mit.edu/projects/)

Coming back to geogtracing information, I think geographical transparency could be useful for giving users a sense of where information has come from, and therefore what context it was produced in. On the other hand, this could introduce an additional level of bias into our evaluation of the credibility of a given piece of information. In addition, this would be complicated by the fact that a server hosting the data isn't necessarily geographically close to the content producer. Pinpointing the creator, moreover, would have privacy implications, of particular concern in oppressive regimes.

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