Some sites and some countries don’t necessarily get along (Image: LI XIN/Getty)
“Where am I?” In the real world, it’s an easy question to answer. Online, things can get more complicated. In the cult novel Neuromancer, William Gibson described: “There’s no there, there,” he wrote.
But it turns out there is. And a new online tool,, will try to figure the answer out for you. Once you install it, it follows you around the internet to compute your “algorithmic citizenship”, based on the amount of time you spend on different countries’ websites.
The results, says creator James Bridle, an artist in London, are about more than digital trivia. The laws people are subject to, and the way they may be viewed by the authorities, can change depending not only on where they are sitting, but where the websites they access are based. For example, the US National Security Agency measures individuals’ browsing data including the geographic spread of the websites they visit. Anyone with browsing habits deemed sufficiently “foreign” is.
“The internet is making us all more international, or super-national,” Bridle says. “It’s a form of citizenship that’s actually being enacted right now. I wanted to build something that made it visible.”
Citizen Ex’s recipe for calculating algorithmic citizenship is fairly simple. Every time the user goes online, it uses IP addresses to map where they are and where each website they visit might be based. Over time, it forms a picture of the geographical spread of the user’s browsing, in terms of the hosting country of each website visited and the amount of time spent on that site.
I spent a few days browsing the internet with Citizen Ex looking over my shoulder. So far, it has pronounced me overwhelmingly American, with little slivers of allegiance to the UK and China, and 5 per cent owing to Costa Rica, for some reason. But the overall US judgement isn’t surprising, since so many popular internet services are based in the US.
But in cyberspace, the flow of information isn’t always predictable: a company’s site might be hosted by a distant third party, or an internet service might be based in an unexpected location. An internet user in London, for example, might find that their Google searches route through Ireland – because Google has a major server cloud there.
Bridle hopes the tool will get people thinking about how they use the internet, and perhaps change their online behaviour. If someone finds much of their activity is based in a particular country, they may rethink whether or not they want to be subject to that country’s laws.
There are a few options out there for savvy users who want to tweak their algorithmic citizenship. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) can make it look like you’re browsing the internet in another country, tricking sites into letting you access content – such as Netflix – that may be blocked in your location. Browser plug-ins like Ghostery and TrackMeNot can help users spot and shake off the companies tracking their digital movements.
“The promise of the internet as an open, free and borderless place relies on you being able to take advantage of certain tools that enhance your privacy,” Bridle says.
Ultimately, however, it may be futile to try to hack your algorithmic citizenship, saysat the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He points out that the Skype call I am using to talk to him from my office in Massachusetts might be routed through places as far away as Hong Kong or Buenos Aires.
“If you want to be a citizen of the US based on your data, that means you can’t have any foreign friends, you can’t travel, you can’t speak another language,” he says. “The tool makes you really understand that we don’t have control over it.”
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