Coding a location based service introduced me to a lot of interesting concepts. The biggest of which was geocoding, an imprecise science of transcribing a user’s IP address into a real world location. I say imprecise because there’s really no good way of doing it and most of the geocoding and reverse-geocoding services out there rely on long lists that match an IP to its location. These lists aren’t entirely accurate so the location you get back from them is usually only good as an initial estimate and you’re better off using something like the HTML5 location framework or just simply asking the user where the hell they are in the world. Unfortunately those inaccurate lists drive a whole lot of current services, most of them with the intent of limiting said service to a certain geographical location.
I’ve written about this practice before and how it’s something of a hangover from the times of DVDs and region locking. From a technology standpoint it makes little sense to block access to certain countries (whether they block you is another matter) as all you’re doing is limiting your market. From a business and legal standpoint the waters are a little murkier as most of the geo-restricted services, the ones of note anyway, are done simply because it’s either not in their business interests to do so (although I believe that’s short sighted) or there’s a lot of legal wrangling to be done in order for it to be made available globally.
A clucky New Zealand ISP, FYX, was attempting to solve this problem of geoblocking and whilst they have withdrawn the service from the market (but are looking to bring it back) I still want to talk about their approach and why its inherently flawed.
FYX is offering what they call “Global Mode” for their Internet Services which apparently makes their users appear as if they’re not from any particular country at all. Their thinking is that once you’re a global user services that were once blocked because of your region will suddenly be available to you, undoing the damage to the free Internet that those inaccurate translations lists can cause. However the idea that no location = geoblocking services ineffective is severely flawed which would be apparent to anyone who’s even had a passing encounter with these services.
For starters most sites with geoblocking enabled do so by using a whitelist meaning that only people of specific countries will be able to access those services. For things like Hulu and netflix they are hard coded to IPs residing within the USA boundaries and anything that’s not on those lists will automatically get blocked. Of course there’s some in-browser trickery that you can do to get around this (although that’s not at the ISP layer) but the only guaranteed solution is to access them through a connection that appears to originate from an IP they trust. Simply not updating the location on those lists won’t do the trick so you’d need to do something more. It’s entirely possible that they’re doing something more fancy than this but the solution I can think of wouldn’t be very scalable, nor particularly proftiable.
It also seems that they might’ve got the attention of some rights holders groups who put pressure on their parent company to do away with the service. Legally there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the idea (apart from the fact that it probably wouldn’t work as well as advertised) but that wouldn’t stop media companies from threatening to take them to court if such a service was continued to be offered. It really shows how scared such organisations are of new technology if a small time ISP with a not-so-special service can be a big enough blip on the radar to warrant such action. I’ll be interested to see how FYX progresses with this, especially if they detail some more info on just how they go about enabling their Global Mode.
The reality of the situation is that we’re trending to a much more connected world, one where the traditional barriers to the free flow of information are no longer present. Companies that made their fortunes in the past need to adapt to the present and not attempt to litigate their way to profitability. Eventually that won’t be an option for them (think BlockBuster vs Netflix) and I really can’t wait for the day that geoblocking is just a silly memory of when companies thought that their decades old business models still worked in an ever changing world.
I had really, truly believed that the Internet Filter was dead and buried. My last post about it was back in September last year and since then I’ve failed to come across anything solid about it apart from Conroy saying that he was still committed to the idea. It’s a good thing really since Australia didn’t appear to really want it and it wouldn’t have been effective anyway but the lack of an official release from the government saying that the idea had been canned meant that the Internet Filter always had a small chance of resurrecting itself. Indeed the much bigger issues facing Australia would seem to have the Internet Filter well buried, leaving us to leave that ugly part of Australia’s past behind us.
Unfortunately for us however it seems that nothing is as unkillable as an election promise to appease a vocal minority and 4 Australian Internet service providers have implemented their own form of what the Internet filter was to become:
MOST Australian internet users will have their web access censored next month after the country’s two largest internet providers agreed to voluntarily block more than 500 websites from view.
Telstra and Optus confirmed they would block access to a list of child abuse websites provided by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and more compiled by unnamed international organisations from mid-year.
“The ACMA will compile and manage a list of URLs of child abuse content that will include the appropriate subsection of the ACMA blacklist as well as child abuse URLs that are provided by reputable international organisations (to be blocked),” the spokesman said.
It seems that whilst the funding for a “mandatory voluntary” filter was indeed dropped in this year’s budget due to limited interest (or was that outright hatred?) the notion of a voluntary filter paid for entirely by the ISPs themselves was still on the table. Strangely enough 4 ISPs agreed to this idea including Telstra and Optus, two companies not known for doing things out of the good of their hearts unless they’re legislated to. I have no idea what their motivations are for doing so either since it just means more work for them without providing any sort of benefit to their end customers. Hell I don’t think this will generate any good will either as most people using these ISPs will be completely unaware of the changes.
They’re also implementing a filter that’s going to be completely ineffectual. Basically it’s just a simple list of URLs to be blocked, curated by ACMA and apparently they’re all sites that contain child abuse material on them. Such a filter disregards the fact that the vast majority of people attempting to access material like this aren’t going to be deterred by the simple fact the URL is blocked, especially when it’s trivial to change the URL at a moment’s notice. Additionally blocking URLs does nothing to stymie the distribution of such material through peer to peer networks and would more than likely drive more of them to use such services. In essence this is nothing more than a complete waste of time for everyone involved and really only serves as a political talking point.
The government and all ISPs involved could do themselves a huge favor by just dropping this idea entirely. It is politically toxic, ineffectual and above all has the potential to be misused in ways that could do Australia a great deal of harm both locally and internationally. Hopefully this is the last time that the Internet Filter will crawl out of its grave to give us one last scare but as they say the price for freedom is eternal vigilance and I’ll be ready with my shotgun should the bloated corpse of the Internet Filter dare try to rise again.