The World-Wide Web Isn’t

Photo: Foreigners in Vietnam, left to right: Dustin (SF), me (LA), Shawn (Singapore)

I used to think that the Internet was a global network that worked pretty much the same way regardless of whether you’re in the U.S. or Vietnam.

If that was ever the case, it isn’t any more.

Last night, I was asked how I learned computer programming. My answer: I learned by doing, at home on a computer. One might say I’m self-taught, but that’s not really true. I worked with lots of people, especially in my early days. I just never met any of those people in person. They are online friends. They’re real, physically located somewhere in the world; but not anywhere near me. For example, one of my teachers was Greg Smith, who I’ve mentioned before.

My questioner asked where I was located. I was somewhat confused by the question. Don’t they have computers with Internet access in Vietnam, and practically everywhere else in the world by now?

Isn’t WiFi and 3G coverage far better here in Ho Chi Minh City than it is in San Francisco? (Yes.) What stops any 8-year-old kid from learning programming, just as I did?

Well, perhaps the web isn’t so world-wide as I’d thought.

I attempted to buy from the U.S. Apple Store. The website allows me to go through the entire process. My order appears to be successful. Then, a few hours later, Apple changes the order status to “Cancelled by Customer”. I didn’t cancel it. I called and talked with Apple. They couldn’t tell me how or why it happened, so I placed my order again. Same problem. This time, I learned it was cancelled for “security reason”. At that instant, I knew it must have been due to my Vietnam IP address. It is impossible to buy from the U.S. Apple Store with a Vietnam IP.

A similar situation occurred when I tried to sign up for Rackspace web hosting. The whole process seemed to work just fine, until it came time to verify the account. They never got back to me on verification. My order, while in the system, could not be verified. They ignored it. They never got back to me. When I called them, they put me on hold for 20 minutes, and eventually said the account was stuck. Finally, they revealed it was because I ordered using a Vietnam IP address.

I used the USC VPN to give myself a Los Angeles IP, and signed up again for a completely new account. This time it worked right away– no issues.

A similar situation occurred when I ordered from Because I was connected from a Vietnam IP address, they terminated my account due to “suspicious activity”. I had to email them and ask for my account to be reinstated. Needless to say, they cancelled my order as well.

Also, this is well-known enough that it goes without saying, but Facebook is blocked in Vietnam. Sometimes you can get around the block by changing your DNS servers. But sometimes you cannot. I have a friend whose ISP blocks Facebook in such a way that changing her DNS settings doesn’t help. She has to use Tor, which means strange behavior (her IP address appears to be from many different random countries) and slow speeds.

I’ve started using StrongVPN, a paid VPN service costing $21 for 3 months. It gives me a U.S. IP address. (Since I’m no longer a USC student, USC no longer gives me access to their VPN.)

A little Googling brought me to Louis Gray’s post of his similar experiences. This phenomenon is by no means limited to third-world communist nations. His location: the United Kingdom.

The sites he couldn’t use: Hulu, Facebook (without being bugged to translate to UK English), Scrabble, and Gmail (he is automatically redirected to “Google Mail”, the UK name of Gmail due to a trademark conflict).

Did you think the web was the same everywhere? What are other examples of websites behaving differently depending on the location of your IP address?

This gives me a new perspective on using the phrase “The Leader of the Free World” to refer to the U.S. President.

One Response to “The World-Wide Web Isn’t”

  1. boyah says:

    In countries with no internal internet restrictions (e.g. the UK) the only major country that restricts what we can do is the US.

    You’ve just listed a whole lot in your post:
    US company won’t allow foreign transaction.
    US company won’t allow foreign transaction.
    US company won’t allow streaming outside US.
    US company won’t allow game played outside US.
    Not to mention the RIAA and their interference.

    The US is just as bad as the third world communist countries. Just look at how they’ve thrown the toys out the pram with the leak of internal documents. All of a sudden domain names are being pulled, the website owner is being targetted with arrest warrants, and US politicians want Wikileaks branded a ‘terrorist organisation’. Ehhhhh very good.

    Facebook works fine, I hardly think being asked on a language preferance counts as a “site he couldn’t use”.
    The Scrabble argument works both ways – in the US and Canada the copyright is held by a different company than the rest of the world.
    Gmail has been known as Gmail in the UK since the start of this year.

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