Geotargeting And The Slippery Slope To Fragmenting The Internet With Localized Censorship

from the the-internet-is-global dept

For years we’ve talked about the challenges a global internet creates for legal questions that are based on more limited jurisdictions. As different countries start to deal with this, there has been some fragmenting of a global internet in the form of country-wide censorship, such as those seen in the Great Firewall of China. However, what’s to stop it from fragmenting further and further? Eric Goldman points me to a recent academic paper arguing that US courts could start enforcing local obscenity laws on the internet by use of geotargeting. As you probably know, disseminating obscenity is illegal in the US, but the “know it when I see it” rule for determining what is “obscene” has generally focused on “community standards.” For the most part, that’s meant “local” community standards. That works (somewhat) when you’re talking about physical distribution and you can try to determine the local community. But on a global internet? As the paper notes, the Supreme Court has mostly punted on this issue. However, the paper suggests that a solution could be to use geotargeting to re-establish local boundaries, jurisdictions and community standards on a global internet:

The line between obscenity and eroticism is hard to pinpoint, and varies from community to community. In general, the process of analyzing whether a work is obscene includes asking whether the content violates the community standards of the local geographic area where the material was published. Thus, for most media, publishers of potentially obscene content must choose the communities into which they publish, or face criminal charges from the least tolerant communities. But for online media, the Supreme Court remains undecided whether the obscenity analysis should use the local community standard. The Court’s doubts stem from the Internet’s global reach and lack of control over who receives free online content. For example, if a work is nationally-available online, and is judged using the same legal standard as in other traditional media, any local community offended by the content has the power of a heckler’s veto to make the publisher liable for distributing obscenity.

This Article explains why the use of a new online technology resolves the question of whether local community standards should be used to judge online content. Called geotargeting, the technology creates borders on the previously borderless Internet, which allows publishers to specifically target geographically localized communities, thereby excluding areas where the material might lead to criminal charges. This new power to publish potentially obscene materials only to selected communities drastically reduces the constitutional concerns of applying traditional obscenity law to online content.

There are a number of problems I can see with this approach — some of which are addressed in the paper. However, what troubles me more is the larger issue. There’s nothing that says this kind of approach needs to be limited to obscenity. Focusing on something like this opens up a fragmented internet ruled by local jurisdictions, where suddenly all sorts of geotargeting requirements start popping up to create a patchwork censorship regime down to very localized regions.

Many of us consider the global nature of the internet a feature rather than a problem. It allows people stuck in regressive communities to access the outside world and find out that their “community norms” may not be what’s considered normal elsewhere. An approach that looks to open up censorship on local standards by use of geotargeting, while unlikely to be effective for those who really do wish to get around it, would almost certainly cause problems for those who have legitimate reasons to reach out beyond their local community.

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Comments on “Geotargeting And The Slippery Slope To Fragmenting The Internet With Localized Censorship”

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bendy says:

Re: Re:

Don’t be misled by this large and abnormally affluent and powerful group that often uses the mainstream media to portray it as having more support than it actually in real life does (such as manipulating camera angles at news-covered events to make it seem like more people support them at such things than actually do so), and that cannot stand the fact that people leave that lifestyle all the time. Because of this, the group makes every effort to pretend such people and the truth they represent (that the gay lifestyle is not nearly as solid and normal as they would like people to believe) does not exist.

Please learn to differentiate between person and action, Prisoner, and understand that an action can be wrong but the person can still be loved and helped. And between what is right and what only seems to be right because it happens to sound good and because it’s what we want to hear. It’s very easy to get the two confused because sometimes we only want to see things how we want to see them, rather than how they actually are.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: Re:

“understand that an action can be wrong but the person can still be loved and helped.”

I think you don’t understand that loving and helping a person cannot involve imposing your biased view upon their person. Even if it were just a lifestyle rather than an inherent characteristic, it would still be wrong to attempt to impose your perceptions of right and wrong upon them. Help and love them by leaving them alone, unless you’re willing to accept other people imposing their biased points of view upon you. I think your bigotry is wrong, so would you support my ability to restrict your freedoms and deny you equality simply because I thought your inherent characteristics were wrong? If not, you’re a hypocrite.

John Doe says:

What's next, web page ratings?

Why don’t we just implement a ratings system like movies have? You can set your browser to only show G rated pages if you are easily offended.

This solves the Geotargeting problem that your actual location can differ from the location your internet feed orgiinates. For example, I am on DSL at home and it looks like I live in a city a couple hours away which must be where my provider joins the internet. At work, my internet feed is several states away as I work in a satellite office. So I would see content from that area and not from my own area. Not to mention satellite feeds would make you look like you are clear across the country.

BTW, I hate both ideas, ratings and geotargeting. The internet is borderless, lets keep it that way. We as a society, need to stop bowing to pressure from everyone that screams. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.

ZombieBotsFromMars says:

Re: Re: What's next, web page ratings?

More along the lines of a voluntary system, what I’m thinking. Which pretty much exist now–IRC, there’s an open-source (ie: no MPAA fee has to be paid) system out now. As I said, with all the parental-control software (free, ISP provided, and premium) out that this is a non-issue all it requires is people be responsible for making their own choices…what? Stop laughing, it could happen.

Paul says:

Re: What's next, web page ratings?

If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.

Ohh How I wish all these people that don’t like that the internet is open, global and unregulated will just leave it alone an build their own freaking network and regulate it how ever they want.

Using a patent/copyright trolls words: Why don’t you invent a new, better and bigger one. It should be crime free with no privacy and where “everyone” can prosper and make huge amounts of money. And patent it so we can’t copy it with out paying your community fees.

Beta (profile) says:

Re: Re: What's next, web page ratings?

The people who push for laws like this aren’t interested in building anything, and their primary goal isn’t to avoid seeing what offends them. Offered a treasure house of art, literature and information, they’ll spend their time delving through it to bring up the filthiest smut they can find, and then scream about it. They are following an old tribal imperative to spread their own cultural values (especially the censorious ones) and impose them on others. If they ever succeed in redacting all nudity from world culture, they’ll probably feel a strange mixture of satisfaction and sadness.

They could promote their creative cultural values, but that would involve more work and satisfy an entirely different urge.

ZombieBotsFromMars says:

Oh the pay proxy services would love it

The pay-proxy services would love it, and things like Tor would become the norm for people using the internet. As it is now geolocking media content hasn’t been all the successful: Can’t watch the new Doctor Who trailer cause the BBC has it geo-locked? No problem, launch Tor. Unless they’re getting to the point of outlawing proxies–which again wouldn’t work, cause people would still use them.

Agree with John Doe: Ratings system similar to games. Hell with all the parent control software out there, it’s practically a none issue. Any one can block content on the personal level.

Anonymous Coward says:

Those who do not know history

In a not so distant past, we already had the equivalent of a fragmented Internet. Before the Internet became popular, there were several separate local networks. Some were national networks (like Minitel), some were large company networks (like AOL or CompuServe), some were even more local than that (like the several BBS). The Internet grew bigger than them, and most of the ones which survived interconnected to the Internet.

If the Internet starts to fragment, the same will happen: a new unified network will grow, and the fragments of the old Internet will end up connected to it.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am reminded of a situation that occurred in the 1990s when a court in Tennessee ruled that an adult-oriented online service based in California was in violation of Tennessee law simply because it was possible for Tennessee residents to reach it by telephone (this is from when the vast majority of home users who had any web access at all were on dialup). Among the unintended(?) side effects of this ruling was that many providers of online services, even non-adult ones, required an address and would refuse Tennessee residents.

ZombieBotsFromMars says:

Re: Re:

The relationship of the US people to the US govt. is like one of those crappy Lifetime movies: “He beats me cause he loves me, he’ll change I know he will, I deserve it, it’s all for the best.”

We b**ch and complain about it, but go running to the abusive “boyfriend” whenever we see something that makes us uncomfortable or offended.

Anonymous Coward says:

This foolishly presumes...

…that there are fixed, knowable relationships between IP addresses and the locations of networks, hosts, and people.

There aren’t.

Oh, the people flogging their fraudulent geolocation “services” like to pretend that there are, because there are plenty of gullible, stupid people willing to pay them for their made-up information, but anyone who actually understands IP, routing, forwarding, tunnels, dynamic addressing, and such knows this is nonsense.

I am sitting, at this moment, in location A. I’m connected back to one of my home systems at location B, to two at work at location C, to a remote server at D, to another remote server at E, and I’m tunneled into a non-server host at F. I’m thus sending and receiving packets from 6 different locations in 5 different states. Those could just as easily be 5 different countries. It is beyond stupid, it is set-yourself-on-fire idiocy to claim that any of these “geolocate” me or that I should be subject to the arbitrary whims of the network-illiterate legislators in any of those.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This foolishly presumes...

All of that goes away when systems properly provide “forward for” information. Basically, you are using the systems as a sort of anonymous proxy, but that is something that will, over time, pretty much go away.

It’s hard for some people to understand, but yes, local governments do matter. This isn’t about geo location per se, rather that you cannot usurp local, regional, or federal laws just because you are doing it “on the internet”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This foolishly presumes...

All of that goes away when systems properly provide “forward for” information. Basically, you are using the systems as a sort of anonymous proxy, but that is something that will, over time, pretty much go away.

Really? Please specify the mechanism by which that will happen.

Once you’re done with that, explain while this will go away — given that we’re inventing, testing, and deploying new mechanisms to do this very thing.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This foolishly presumes...

It goes away when it becomes a crime to do it without showing the “forwarding for” in the header.

Then you can choose to be a criminal, and accept the liability on your server for having provided such a service.

Not gonna happen. At least not without a SOPA scale fight.

Anonymity has been recognized prior to the inception of the United States and has been upheld multiple times by the Supreme Court. That’s not going to change because it involves the internet.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Re: Re: Re:3 This foolishly presumes...

Not gonna happen. At least not without a SOPA scale fight.

SOPA plus… imagine the corporate response to the budgetary ramifications of such a change. I’d guess you’d have just about every multi-national corporation with a US branch buying up congressmen left, right and centre to stop it.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This foolishly presumes...

It goes away when it becomes a crime to do it without showing the “forwarding for” in the header.

And tens of thousands of legitimate businesses across the world that happen to operate in the US too scream in terror at the billions they’d have to spend to update internal global networks to support such a stupid idea. Yeah that’ll help the global economy.

Then you can choose to be a criminal, and accept the liability on your server for having provided such a service.

And that worked sooooooooooo well for the “war on piracy” didn’t it? Make everything criminal and everybody just stops it? Ha ha ha haahahahahahahahahaha.
So the next one is a “war on networking”? I can’t wait to see it. Is this another one where the US governemnt is going to get on its sanctimonious high-horse on behalf of a clueless minority and try and bully all the other countries around the world to comply? I wonder how many of those pointless and unwinnable “wars” the US can support before going completely broke and being bought by China.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This foolishly presumes...

It goes away when it becomes a crime to do it without showing the “forwarding for” in the header.

I don’t know what this “forward for” business is. Can you point to an rfc?

In any case, it most suredly won’t “go away” if it were to become illegal. Worst case, the field will just be spoofed. Also, it would be impossible to detect.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This foolishly presumes...

By what reason are you getting so worked up over something that you will not participate in?

Or are you just drooling over the prospect of a tightly controlled Interne, like your freedoms are becoming?

Your shortsighted comments put everyone’s freedoms at risk. Including yours, your families, your friends, everyone. Just because you don’t think you are violating any laws Now, doesn’t mean you wont be in the future.

Remember, there is Always someone else more screwed up in their beliefs than you. i.e. There will always be a bigger bully on the block. You are not the last word in any subject.

Cowardly Anonymous says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This foolishly presumes...

At least one country doesn’t play ball. Proxies get set up there that don’t have forward for addresses embedded in them. Anything routed through there has only a forward for address for that proxy.

That country rakes in millions in proxy fees from international customers.

Not that you’ll have an easy time mandating a forward for header.

Violated (profile) says:


The only way the Internet can remain global is through Independence, its own Government, and its own laws and courts. Anyone then entering the Internet then accepts that they enter a different country.

Either that or tell everyone who wants to twist and warp the Internet to their own perverted will to f-off.

I still remember the days when the Internet was cool and fun and no one cared what was going on provided on one damaged the network or was anti-sociable. Now we only have open Warfare with copyright mostly to blame.

As to pornography then that has mostly been expanding in one general direction of fairly standard media. From what I have seen this has mostly been enlightening in a new awareness that largely shifts the bounds of obscenity.

I would expect in a generation or two for general movies and TV programming to merge with pornography. They are already close in many discrete ways but they should eventually go with full scale banging as is appropriate to the creation. Actors and actresses will then be graded on more than acting talent not that popularity has that much to do with talent already.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Various

The only way the Internet can remain global is through Independence, its own Government, and its own laws and courts. Anyone then entering the Internet then accepts that they enter a different country.

Absolutely. The laws of any city, state, province or country do not apply: we are above them, beyond them, outside them.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Various

The laws of any city, state, province or country do not apply


The internet has no geographical fix. Cities, states, provinces, and countries are defined by geographical limits. You cannot map one onto the other, and no localized laws should apply to the internet as a concept.

Such laws can and should, however, apply to the people who are in those areas. If you’re in a no-porn area, then it only follows that you are breaking the law if you surf porn. However, if the porn company is not also in that area, those no-porn laws should not restrict their actions.

New Mexico Mark says:

Already possible

With something like OpenDNS, a subscriber can self-limit types of content they don’t want to see in a fairly granular way. It isn’t perfect, but it is surprisingly good. What if OpenDNS and/or other DNS services allowed communities to create default “community standards” profiles that users could subscribe to, if so desired… similar to the “like” button in Facebook?

These would not even have to be created specifically, all OpenDNS would have to do is average the custom configuration of all the user in different geographic areas to create those profiles.

The cool thing is that using this method you don’t just “not see” available content. You are immediately aware if something has been blocked and can make a reasonable decision about whether you want to circumvent that self-imposed blocking and view it anyway.

S. Ticka-Phorkinnit says:

The Internet is now fully mainstream, so it's done.

Everything is downhill from here on.

The huge influx of Internet advertising, sales, marketing, pedaling, money-grabbing, sherriffing, spying, contamination (er, regulation), bullshit-opinion preaching and general crap-pushing presages the end of a useful Internet, just as happened to the telephone, radio and television (to name but a few).

As always, commercial hands are killers’ hands.

It’s time, once again, for a new vehicle, so we can enjoy a few years usefulness before the unstoppable crap-tsunami hits that.

TheStupidOne says:

Isn't it about time ...

We seriously overhauled the obscenity laws? I’m in favor of getting rid of them completely, but I know that won’t happen. Here is what I propose: If the digital distribution of ‘obscene’ material can only be accomplished through informed pull distribution (ie Hey! Goat on rabbit porn! I want to see that! Downloading now :D) instead of push distribution (ie Ugh, another pop-up, OMG! What is that goat doing to that poor rabbit?! I’m going to vomit) then there is no problem. The only requirements be that the provider can reasonably expect the customers to know what material will be viewed, and the customers be able to opt out of seeing it once they know what to expect.

Also, to assist the customer, providers could self rate their material with descriptors that customers can rate as accurate or inaccurate. Then voluntary computer level filtering could be easily accomplished by using a filter that only allows through appropriately rated web sites with community deemed accurate ratings.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Re: Isn't it about time ...

The problem with your suggestion is that it doesn’t pass the “But..but… think of the CHILDREN!!!” test. You see all children are mindless automatons just waiting to be programmed by the slightest glimpse of anything naughty and no matter how hard one tries as a parent to, you know, randomly say no to stuff without explaining why, it just can’t compete with the Spawn Of All Evil that is The Internet. I mean it’s not like you can actually teach children values so they can decide for themselves that the naughty goat probably oughtn’t be doing that to the rabbit is it?

Anonymous Coward says:

It works both ways...

Back in 2000, the city of Provo, Utah sued a local businessman named Larry Peterman. Peterman owned and operated a chain of adult video stores. Provo (which openly prides itself on being one of the most conservative communities anywhere in the United States) sued Peterman for violating local obscenity standards.

The thing is, Peterman won his case because his lawyer was smart enough to subpoena the pay-per-view records from the Marriott hotel next to the courthouse. These records demonstrated that, not only did the citizens of Provo watch way more porn than they claimed to, but that Peterman’s porn supply was a drop in the bucket compared to the total porn consumption of the area. A jury cleared Peterman within minutes.

The conclusion one can draw from this is that, if you want to enforce ‘local community standards’ rules on content, you first need to have a clear understanding of what ‘local community standards’ are. Nobody (or almost nobody) wants to stand up in a town meeting and express their deep devotion to pornography, but there’s a pretty good chance that a lot of people at that meeting watch pornography in private.

Anyway, TFA suggests that local ‘community standard’ laws could be applied to the internet using geotargeting, but any content that’s accessed by a significant percentage of the community is ipso facto not obscene by community standards. For such a geotargeting system to work, ISPs would need to be tracking local content access — and that implies that the ISPs would know how much of the community was really accessing that content. By implementing a system like this, and providing detailed breakdowns of what content people accessed (despite claiming not to access it), the ultimate effect would probably be to cripple the ‘community standards’ laws almost completely.

Robert A. Rosenberg (profile) says:

Re: It works both ways...

Peterman’s lawyer pulled a con job on the jury (or the opposing lawyer was asleep at the switch and did not think). Using the viewing habits of the Hotel Residents (as opposed to using the PPV numbers on the local Cable System) is not a valid measure since that population is going to be primarily non-locals just visiting the area (or are the locals checking into the hotel just to watch/get-access-to porn?).

K.E.Mort (profile) says:

Large scale fail

First off let’s just acknowledge that SCOTUS got the obscenity ruling wrong in the first place.

Any ruling which depends on “know it when I see it” cannot be solid jurisprudence. I don’t care what court they sit on.

The community standard fails because it isn’t based on the community. It is instead based on the standards of a group of individuals who generally are supposed to represent the community but that in this case simply cannot know what the community really thinks.

That is unless they are either snooping on my internet and TV viewing, or they’ve gone around asking everyone what they think.

In some areas of the country I am sure that a strict standard might fly. But in most, it really wouldn’t if you put it to the test for real.

Honestly it isn’t up to any government to stop me from consuming porn if I want to, and I’d argue they shouldn’t be putting out of business an entire industry which isn’t any more harmful in the hands of a normal sane person than tobacco or alcohol, and is arguably FAR less.

Given the obsession some people seem to have with limiting all things sex, it seems that they protest too much! The ought get their heads out of the gutter and leave mine there if I want it there! 🙂

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