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cybernaut

They’ve got your number

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Go to CNN.com from anywhere outside the U.S. and you’ll be immediately directed to one of their international editions – and because CNN still hasn’t figured out the difference between Canada and the U.K., Canadians happen get the international edition with links to all the latest soccer and cricket news.

Go to a Web store like Best Buy or Amazon and you’ll immediately be directed to their Canadian storefronts, and all content and prices will be Canadian.

Google, Yahoo and the other search engines automatically point you to their Canadian ‘.ca’ addresses, even if you initially tried to access their .com sites. By doing so they can more easily direct you to their Canadian content pages, such as news, weather, stock quotes, and more.

This redirecting technology is known as geolocation, and it’s been around almost as long as the Web. Thanks to new technology, however, it’s starting to get a lot more specific.

Instead of identifying you as a client from a particular country, new systems can identify you as a resident of a particular province, city or town – depending on how specific they want to go.

For example if you’re in Vancouver and type ‘French restaurants’ into a Google search, you’ll wind up with a list of bistros in the Vancouver area. Web sites, especially online gambling sites, also use this technology to keep users out because of the differing laws in those particular countries.

Some privacy advocates are concerned that this technology, which can be genuinely helpful, can also be abused. For instance, how will you know if you’re getting the lowest price for a product or service if you don’t get to see the same price list that everyone else does, regardless of where they live? If news Web sites further tailor their content to specific markets, there’s a potential that geolocation will block out the different views and stories that make up the big picture.

According to the CNN Technology section there’s also a growing concern over geolocation during the election cycle, as candidates attempt to pander directly to specific markets.

For example, if people in Detroit, Michigan are most worried about jobs, people in Deerborn, Michigan are most worried about crime, and people in Ann Arbor are most worried about the war in Iraq, a politician’s Web site could be set up with different front pages that are customized for each of those communities. In other words, the front page you see could depend on the location you’re accessing the site from.

Is this practice dishonest? Not necessarily, but it can be misleading. It saves politicians from ranking the importance of issues themselves, which makes it more difficult for people to vote according to their own priorities. In addition, assuming all political parties have access to the same polls and demographic information, elections could ultimately be decided by plank issues rather than platforms.

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