Information Today
Volume 17,  Number 5 • May 2000
• Focus on Publishing •
Customizing the World on the Web
Crossing international borders is getting pretty complicated 
by Robin Peek

Once upon a time, we were just one great, glorious Web space—borderless, unfettered by rules, a great virtual community. We were so awestruck when creating the Web that we overlooked the fact that this was really a worldwide media platform. Little things—such as requiring visitors to identify themselves as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss”—may seem innocent, but they may be perceived as insults in certain countries. So we have to get off our little boats circling the “It’s a Small World” amusement ride at Disneyland and deal with a truly worldwide and increasingly sophisticated Web.

While it’s true that from space the geography is unmarred by borders, in the real world even true Webheads must have passports. Borders are real and meaningful things. Yes, in the U.S. we have been ahead of everyone, but the rest of the world is quickly catching up. For example, The Standard ( recently noted that, due to readily available free Internet access, Net usage in Latin America is projected to explode to 30 million people by 2003.

Real internationalization, not merely having Internet access, is going to make Web life more complicated. And Web-land is already becoming a more formidable place to do business. Search engines don’t just find Web sites anymore, as Web-site owners must now agonize to see if they have made the grade (or paid the freight). Click-and-mortar is now reminding the virtual newcomers who really did “get here first.” Now Web site owners must determine how (and perhaps even if) they should conduct international activities.

The Border Patrols
We may be seeing the end of the Web’s freewheeling ways as more governments take increasingly aggressive postures about the legality (and possible taxation) of the bytes that flow across their borders. That means you could get a friendly (or not so friendly) e-mail message from some government official telling you that you can’t say or do or sell something that’s on your Web site because it’s being viewed in a particular country.

This may come as a surprise to some who believe that because they’re moving at “Web speed,” the traditional rules somehow don’t apply. Perhaps the most widely known example is clothing company Lands End’s recent run-in with the German government, which declared that the company’s “lifetime” guarantee on its products is illegal within Germany (14 days is the maximum there). Another example concerns legal mandates, such as the ones in French-speaking Canada that declare that French should not only be available, but also be the dominant language on all publications and signage.

Which brings us to the issue that Web data, like politics, is local. It doesn’t matter if your server is located in the U.S.—where your data go, you go. So whether it’s paying taxes or conforming to commerce (or publishing) law, if your server is open for business in a particular country, the prevailing wisdom now is to be prepared to have it consider you to be “doing business” within its borders.

Don’t Offend the Natives
However, it’s not just conforming to local laws but to local customs that should concern contemporary Web publishers. Many traditional publishers are already aware of the necessity of creating separate editions for the global markets. They know all too well that it’s not just language but also conventions that must be considered when trying to take a message to a country. Take, for example, numeric conventions, such as currency, measurement, and date/time representations: Does 1/12/00 indicate January 12 or December 1? (Answer: It depends where you are.)

And even though English is the language of the Web, that doesn’t mean that readers will stay if an alternative is available. Forrester Research recently reported that people are two times more likely to stay at a Web site if it’s written in their native language. While translation programs might be adequate (an 80-to-90-percent accuracy rate is generally reported), most serious Web publishers are reconciling themselves to the fact that content must be completely rewritten in the native language. This customization may even have to conform to an individual country. While both the Portuguese and Brazilians speak Portuguese, there are significant differences in the use of the language.

Unfortunately, there are no translation programs that ensure graphics and visual elements will translate into other cultures, either. In the U.S., for example, orange is considered a warm color, but in Japan it’s a cool color. The significance of a shamrock as a good luck charm is lost on most non-Western cultures. An advertising symbol, say the sock puppet currently used by, has no meaning to those who have not seen the television advertisements.

A Customized Future
The solution is neither easy nor cheap, but it can be found in customization. A customized server can take incoming requests and direct them (using the address of request) to specific sets of pages. So if you are looking for while in a cybercafe in Portugal, your request would serve up pages customized for Portugal. The server that contains the data could be in New Jersey (where the publisher is located), or it could be in Portugal.

Customization introduces its own set of problems, not the least of which is that it utterly destroys any notion of one universal Web. And a user could be barred from getting to particular pages (even if a person knew that the pages existed). In theory, a company could refuse to serve up any pages to a particular country if legal or taxation reasons demanded it.

A big issue that’s facing Web publishers will be the control of content. If all content is housed within one server or server farm, the content can be easily controlled by that entity. One downside of this model is the logic of keeping the data closer to the requester, so if someone in Argentina requests a page, the transactions don’t have to travel to the U.S. This proximity, of course, speeds up delivery—which is the name of the virtual game in Web-land. But, not surprisingly, surrendering server control makes people nervous, particularly with Internet laws being as ill-defined as they are right now.

Letting content be controlled locally can help ensure that viewers get a cogent message (which is the whole point of publishing). But it has the potential of raising havoc with establishing or maintaining a clear corporate image or message. In addition, data may not be consistently maintained. Information may be released in the U.S. on Monday, but not translated for one country until Tuesday and another on Thursday. On the other hand, it’s a competitive world out there and the Web site that best gets the message across wins.

Despite all the problems it will introduce, it seems inevitable that we are facing a customized future. It appears unlikely that the world is just going to start singing in harmony and come to agreement on contentious issues (like privacy and data security). And yes, I shudder when I think about how bogged down the Web is going to become as legal beagles start combing through Web sites trying to ensure that everything complies.

But, it is indeed called the World Wide Web, and it seems inevitable that eventually the world is going to catch up and bring real-world issues along. It is, as the song goes, “a small world after all.”

Robin Peek is associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. Her e-mail address is

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