29 July 2009

I can't order British groceries from Asia

The first time I gave a public lecture about "Internet Borders", one of my former students in the audience shared a story about his recent experience with online borders. He and his wife had been traveling extensively in South East Asia and they were preparing to return to England. They had been away for a long time and knew that their kitchen was empty. They also knew that they would be exhausted after the long-haul flight.

So they had a brilliant idea: they would log on to the web site of their (very well known) UK grocery store, and place an order for some groceries. They could schedule delivery late in the same day that they landed. Anyone who travels long-haul over multiple time zones will see the brilliance of this plan. Here is an opportunity to stay in-doors and recover without the need to go out shopping.

One problem: the UK grocery store web site was strangely inaccessible. The web browser and net connection was working, but it became clear that this specific traffic was being refused. Once my student and his wife landed in England they were able to connect immediately.

I have not been able to confirm this with the grocery store in question (and thus I will not identify them) but my working hypothesis is this: someone who runs the web site reasoned that people outside the UK do not need to order home-delivered groceries from a grocery store in the UK. (Perhaps the traffic was only refused from points originating outside Europe?) Therefore such "foreign" traffic was likely to be a nuisance (at best) or a prelude to fraud (at worst).

WHAT ABOUT YOU? Have you ever tried to order something online "back home" while away on a trip and found that you could not? If so, please place a comment here explaining your encounter.

28 July 2009

There's no such place as cyberspace

Every year I start my course at the Information Security Group, Royal Holloway University of London by explaining how laws (even really old laws) apply to the use of the Internet. There are only three basic rules, and the first of these is: There is no such place as "cyberspace".

This shouldn't be too surprising. The word "cyberspace" was created by author William Gibson in the early 1980's. He explained that "cyberspace" exists in our imaginations. In his fiction he described it as a "consensual hallucination" shared by billions. I'm pretty happy with that as a working definition.

Laws exist in the real world and define relationships between people who live in the real world. Laws also define the relationship between a given state and the people who have an impact on people in that state. Enforcement of law is carried out by people who use varying degrees of force with respect to other people. The common denominator? People. People who live in a real and physical world.

There is no "state" of cyberspace. It has no meaningful existence as a "place".

There is a lot more to say about this, but not today.

27 July 2009

Advertising on the BBC?

Have a quick look at BBC News online. You will find it at news.bbc.co.uk.

Here's a question for you: do you see commercial advertising? The answer will very likely depend on WHERE you are when you look at the web site.

Those of us who live in the UK do not see advertising, and there is an important legal reason that we do not see advertising. Here in the UK every household with a colour television set is required to pay an annual "television license fee" of about GBP145 (about USD240). This money is collected and given to: the BBC! Since we are paying for the BBC anyway, the BBC is (by law) not allowed to sell commercial advertising in its UK broadcasting. The BBC has taken this mandate into its online activity, and so BBC News Online does not advertise. Or does it?

The BBC is not allowed to show commercial advertising in its UK broadcasting, but it is very much allowed to sell its content to international markets - and those international outlets are allowed to charge for commercial advertising broadcast in THEIR market. So I'm very sorry for all of my friends in the US who watch BBC North America. You are not in the UK, you don't pay a UK license fee, so you can struggle through television commercials like everyone else in North America.

But what about the online operation? A few years ago while traveling in the US I noticed something unusual when I logged into BBC News Online: advertising!

So here's the thing: if you look at news.bbc.co.uk while you are located in the USA, you will probably see paid-for commercial advertising. (It doesn't always work. Try it and see what happens. Post your results here as a Comment because I'd like to know what you see.)

SAME URL leads to DIFFERENT content, depending on where you are in the physical world.

Do you still believe there are no "borders" in cyberspace?

24 July 2009

Content not available in your region

Isn't it interesting how often we now encounter this message. What do you mean "my region"? The web site operator means "where you are physically sitting and using a web browser". So when sitting in Europe it is increasingly difficult to obtain video feeds from US television network web sites. For those of you in the USA, you may similarly find it difficult to "see" video posted on the BBC web site here in the UK.

We all type in the same URL: what we actually "see" depends on which country we are in at the time we type.

Internet borders.