Country-specific search results

It isn’t really possible to search the “global web” today. You can, however, try to use Google to search the web of another country by manually manipulating the ccTLD in the URL to divert your search to a different country service than the country you are located in.

But starting recently, that’s no longer possible. Betanews points out that Google makes it harder to search for results from other countries:

Google has announced that it will now always serve up results that are relevant to the country that you’re in, regardless of the country code top level domain names (ccTLD) you use.

What can you do instead? The official Google blog explains in Making search results more local and relevant:

If for some reason you don’t see the right country when you’re browsing, you can still go into settings and select the correct country service you want to receive. Typing the relevant ccTLD in your browser will no longer bring you to the various country services—this preference should be managed directly in settings.

This codifies your country preference, making it harder to switch across different experiences. In the past I’ve both searched in different languages and modified the ccTLD to attempt to locate different search results. Now my searches are limited to the information stored in the US-specific country service maintained by Google, unless I make a settings-level change to affect that.

Searching the global web for information gets a little bit harder. Perhaps market research is showing Google that our hunt for information is more valuable when it’s local (or more “relevant” at least). It’s another way that the web is mediated for our consumption.

Who gives you the Internet?

Iran and Russia are becoming Internet provider nexuses to other countries. Dyn Research wrote about shifts in 2013 that led states in the Persian Gulf to seek out additional Internet providers.

Sometimes, it takes a real disaster to create something genuinely new. March 2013 was a month of disasters in the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East African Internet, with major submarine cable cuts affecting SMW3, SMW4, IMEWE, EIG, SEACOM, and TE-North.

One of the “genuinely new” Internet traffic paths that emerged in response is a counterintuitive terrestrial route, linking the ancient Indian Ocean trade empire of Oman with the Internet markets of Western Europe, by way of Iran, Azerbaijan, and the Russian Caucasus. As we’ll see, its effects are now being felt across the region, from Pakistan, to Gulf states like Bahrain and Oman, to Kenya.

More recently, Russia started providing a new Internet link to North Korea. As reported by 38North, Russia Provides New Internet Connection to North Korea:

The connection, from TransTeleCom, began appearing in Internet routing databases at 09:08 UTC on Sunday, or around 17:38 Pyongyang time on Sunday evening.

Before this additional route became available, China was the only provider of Internet access to the country’s sole ISP.

Until now, Internet users in North Korea and those outside accessing North Korean websites were all funneled along the same route connecting North Korean ISP Star JV and the global Internet: A China Unicom link that has been in operation since 2010.

This additional link makes the country’s access to the Internet less precarious and vulnerable to disconnection by attackers.

More than once the link has been the target of denial of service attacks. Most were claimed by the “Anonymous” hacking collective, but on at least one previous occasion, many wondered if US intelligence services had carried out the action.

IPv4 trafficking in Romania

Romania is selling IPv4 addresses to make money, but how did they get so many in the first place? ComputerWorld explores How Romania’s patchwork Internet helped spawn an IP address industry.

The roots of the Romanian IP address trade lie in the country’s peculiar Internet history. When commercial Internet service began in Romania around 2000, it was totally unplanned and unregulated. People started ISPs by pulling cables from one house to the next.

As the IPv6 transition and adoption is still ongoing, people are still seeking out IPv4 addresses where they can find them.

Where is the Internet decentralized?

Dyn Research interrogates the notion that the Internet is decentralized by looking at the actual state of infrastructure and routing resilience around the world. What did they find?

The key to the Internet’s survival is the Internet’s decentralization — and it’s not uniform across the world. In some countries, international access to data and telecommunications services is heavily regulated. There may be only one or two companies who hold official licenses to carry voice and Internet traffic to and from the outside world, and they are required by law to mediate access for everyone else.

Countries might not be ensuring maximum redundancy through decentralization for political reasons, a desire to control access to the Internet more easily, but also due to monetary reasons:

Increased diversity at the international frontier often spells less money for the national incumbent provider (typically the old telephone company, often owned by the government itself). Without some strong legal prodding and guidance from the telecoms regulator, significant diversification in smaller markets with a strong incumbent can take a long, long time.

 

Unrepresented languages on the web

Per Al Jazeera, 95% of the world’s languages continue to be unrepresented online.

The real problem is a digital architecture that forces people to operate on the terms of another culture, unable to continue the development of their own.

The architecture of the web influences the languages and cultures interacting with it:

He rightly homes in on the invisible underpinnings that enable us to use a language online, such as input methods, OS support (on a range of devices, in countless applications), transliteration and translation and spell-checking tools. Just developing a Yiddish spell-checker, for instance, has required a stable input method for the modified Hebrew alphabet that Yiddish uses, the prior standardization of that alphabet (still contested), standardized spellings of most words (sometimes contested), technical ease in handling the Yiddish alphabet and a loaded dictionary.

It’s complex to reflect the world views and cultures of the world on the web.

Each language reflects a unique world-view and culture complex, mirroring the manner in which a speech community has resolved its problems in dealing with the world, and has formulated its thinking, its system of philosophy and understanding of the world around it. In this, each language is the means of expression of the intangible cultural heritage of people, and it remains a reflection of this culture for some time even after the culture which underlies it decays and crumbles, often under the impact of an intrusive, powerful, usually metropolitan, different culture.

What makes it such a challenge to both incorporate multiple languages on the web, and also to build out fleshed-out versions of those languages?

Language homogenization on the web

Motherboard says The Internet Is Killing Most Languages:

The great flat, globalized world of the internet operates pretty much as a monoculture, Kornai says. Only about 250 languages can be called well-established online, and another 140 are borderline. Of the 7,000 languages still alive, perhaps 2,500 will survive, in the classical sense, for another century, and many fewer will make it on to the internet.

Globalization of the world and the web could lead to homogenization of the languages in both places.

The adage “If it’s not on the web, it does not exist,” neatly encapsulates the loss of prestige. And as a generation of digital natives comes up, their online tongue is likely not to be their mother tongue—a loss of competence.

Languages on the web matter for self identity

Is homogenization of language on the web an instantiation of totalitarianism?

Boston Review on Herta Müller’s Language of Resistance:

Since language plays such an important part in the construction of the self, when the state subjects you to constant acts of linguistic aggression, whether you realize it or not, your sense of who you are and of your place in the world are seriously affected. Your language is not just something you use, but an essential part of what you are. For this reason any political disruption of the way language is normally used can in the long run cripple you mentally, socially, and existentially. When you are unable to think clearly you cannot act coherently. Such an outcome is precisely what a totalitarian system wants: a population perpetually caught in a state of civic paralysis.

What if the web is the state, in this context? What does it mean for self-identity, power, and a neutral web?

Top-level domains and nationalism

In 2010, Irina Shklovski and David M. Struthers wrote an excellent article on Kazakh national identity and its reflection through top-level domain name choices. The article is titled: Of States and Borders on the Internet: The Role of Domain Name Extensions in Expressions of Nationalism Online in Kazakhstan and the Oxford Internet Institute makes a PDF available.

The space on the internet is easily traversable and state boundaries in the form of domain extensions can be crossed with no more effort than a click of a mouse. Yet, what might such traversals of imagined state boundaries on the internet mean to the people doing the traversing? This question is especially relevant when considering people from Kazakhstan, a country where notions of statehood and nationalism are contested and are in the process of being renegotiated. Results presented here suggest that residents of Kazakhstan are acutely aware of national boundary traversals as they navigate the internet. The naming of a state-controlled space on the internet, through the use of ccTLDs, does in fact matter to the average user. Citizens of Kazakhstan often identified their activity on the internet as happening within or outside the space of the state to which they felt allegiance and attachment. We argue that naming matters for the creation of not only imagined communities online but also for individual expressions of nationalism on the internet.

Kazakhstan was previously part of the USSR.

There are several ways online spaces such as websites or other internet resources might signal their national affiliation. One such was is through the use of “country-code top-level domain names” (ccTLDs) that are in fact managed by an organization affiliated with the country in question that is the “designated manager” of second-level domain names (DNS) with the defined ccTLD (Postel 1994). The presence of a ccTLD often does not imply that the server that houses the page is in fact physically located on the territory of the country that the ccTLD denotes. However, symbolically, the webpage or an internet resource would display its national affiliation regardless of its actual physical location. We argue that the majority of internet users do not know and likely do not care where the resources they use online are physically located, but pay attention to the symbolic information embedded in the URLs as well as in the content they consume. In fact, prior research demonstrates that barring the physical locations of online resources, a direct analysis of links between sites based exclusively on their URLs indicated that most sites tend to link within a given ccTLD rather than across ccTLDs (Halavais 2000).

ccTLDs can operate as a national identity signifier, a way to entrench political borders on the web.

Although ccTLDs are the most common marker of national affiliation, they are rarely used in the US, suggesting a largely US-centric structure of generic TLD use such as .com, .net or .org (Leiner et al 2002). The lack of a country-identification for US businesses and personal sites may have been one of the drivers for the idea that the internet can be a borderless space. The use of ccTLDs is far more common in countries other than the US. We suggest that one of the reasons for this could be an attempt to carve out a national space on the internet where borders are deliniated, to clearly mark non-US territories and to provide symbolic markers for internet users.

The United States is an exception to this sort of identification. We’re the white people of the web in this way—the rarely-acknowledged default that doesn’t experience a national identification with our ccTLD because so much of the web (and our web) is US-built and US-centric.

Although much rhetoric in western countries still speaks of the one single internet that spans the world, the experience of talking about the internet in Kazakhstan begins to question this notion of a global undifferentiated online space.

Is there really a global single internet, or is there a series of differentiable internets that happen to use similar architecture and integrated infrastructure?

In Kazakhstan, many commented on the importance of both Russian and English for simply navigating online. For many young Kazakh-speaking respondents, however, use of Kazakh was an important marker of ethnic identity and a deliniation [sic] of national space online. Initially, young ethnic Kazakh activists translated interfaces of existing Western resources such as Facebook and WordPress into Kazakh by contacting the companies and offering translation services for free.

Language matters too, as a way of communicating but also self-expression.

I recommend reading the whole thing.

Politics and server locations

Theorizing the Web 2014 included a panel on World Wide Web(s): Theorizing the Non-Western Web. The participants, from the program, follow:

  • Presider / Jillet Sarah Sam @JilletSarahSam
  • Hashmod / Alice Samson @theclubinternet
  • Panelists:
    • David Peter Simon | @davidpetersimon | The Do-Gooder Industrial Complex?
    • Jason Q. Ng | @jasonqng | Fit for Public Display: Rethinking censorship via a comparison of Chinese Wikipedia with Hudong and Baidu Baike
    • Tolu Odumosu | @todumosu | Phoning the Web: A critical examination of Web infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa
    • Dalia Othman |@daliaothman | Social Media, Activism and the Middle East

The live tweets from the session included some interesting tidbits.

The borderless internet is a myth

The Atlantic, The Myth of a Borderless Internet. Political borders are re-enshrined on the web in a literal and metaphorical sense.

Just like the cartographers of yore, multinational corporations—particularly Internet companies—play a role in defining and shaping political boundaries for the public’s consumption. This rise of huge, international corporations online has torn away at the Emerald Curtain that once obscured the variety of geopolitical boundaries that exist in the world, making clearer to the average person just how unsettled the planet’s borders really are.

Given the global nature of the Internet, corporate giants like Google and Microsoft are forced to define borders, often contending with demands from governments. The result? One’s view of certain countries’ borders is often dependent on the physical location from which one accesses Google or Bing maps. In other cases—such as that of the Western Sahara—jurisdiction is a determining factor. Microsoft, which has offices in Morocco, takes its cue from Rabat in determining the territory’s borders, while Google—which does not—draws a dotted line between Morocco and the Western Sahara, demarcating the disputed border.

Political borders are enshrined in mapping tools, but reflected differently based on the nation-state that you occupy. The web has clear political borders, and the map you see on the web does too.

Rather than remove content entirely as other companies do, Twitter created a system whereby content would be “withheld” from users in a given country. Users are notified that the content in question has been withheld due to a legal request from a government. In addition to Pakistan, the tool has been used in numerous countries, including France, Brazil, and Russia.

The tool’s usage means that one “view” of the platform from a given country is different from the view from another. In other words, a Pakistani Twitter user is provided a sanitized version of Twitter, while an American one has access to—as far as we know—whatever content they desire. Corporate decisions around controversial speech, such as this one, all too often result in the creation of an “iron curtain” of sorts, dividing the seemingly borderless Internet.

The web you see in one country might not be the same web you see in another country. Political borders matter.