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Until recently, it was frequently said to be impossible or at least pointless to attach significance to ’location’ in the online arena. Indeed, the impossibility of linking those active on the Internet, to a geographical location was seen as a distinctive feature of the Internet. However, this is all changing. A recent survey revealed that a large number of companies, particularly in the U.S., seek to identify the geographical location of those who visit the companies’ Web sites. While it is still true that Internet communication largely lacks reliable geographical identifiers, several non-technical methods are applied to cater for the need to know the location of those active on the Internet. Furthermore, so-called geolocation technologies are becoming increasingly accurate, and while unlikely to ever be one hundred percent accurate, may, in the near future or perhaps already today, be accurate enough for legal purposes. Yet the questions that these developments give rise to have gained surprisingly little attention in literature. Against this background, the article examines the different ways in which a Web site operator can identify the geographical location of those accessing its Web site, and the legal implications of such identification.
While a range of purposes, such as fraud detection, authentication, content targeting, security and network efficiency has been envisaged for geo-identification in general, and geo-location technologies in particular, it is primarily the use of geo-location teclmologies for conditioning access and legal compliance that is of concern for this article.
Finally by way of introduction, for the purpose of an overview such as the one provided in this article, it is useful to draw a number of distinctions. First, it should be acknowledged that geo-Iocation technologies are not the only ways in which a Web site operator may seek to identify the geographical location of the access-seeker. I therefore distinguish between hard protection provided by geo-location technologies and the soft protection provided by alternative non-technical means. Secondly, since the level of complexity of different geo-location technologies varies greatly, I draw a distinction between sophisticated geo-location technologies and unsophisticated geo-location technologies. Before these different categories are discussed in detail, a few more words should, however, be said about the context in which geo-identification is relevant.