We've all been frustrated by it. The message that pops up when we try to watch a particular YouTube video, stream a particular show or listen to a particular song: ‘Not available in your country'. This is known as Geo-blocking and is the source of much irritation for internet users worldwide, who want to be able to surf the web freely and access all the content that interests them. The legality of geo-blocking is disputed and is certainly a grey area. Some content is restricted by governments, and some by private companies, although the EU has started taking measures against regional restrictions. There are ways around geo-blocking for everyday web users – these enable restrictions to be bypassed and therefore content can be accessed.
So, What Is Geo-Blocking?
Geo-blocking is, put simply, a way of limiting access to certain online content for users in a specific country or region. Quite often you will be directed to a message informing you that the content is unavailable to you, or in some cases, such as Netflix, you'll be diverted to a region-specific version of their service, with certain content unavailable.
What Is It For?
Usually, the restrictions on content on a geographical basis are enforced by heavyweight internet content providers such as Amazon, Netflix or HBO – or just about any company which has to follow compliance guidelines in the region where they are based. Sometimes a company won't actually own all the content which they offer, so they may not possess the rights to broadcast certain material outside of the geographic areas in which they are the license holder.
Other examples of geo-blocking include the BBC's iPlayer content, which is funded by UK taxpayer money and therefore is unavailable outside the UK (there is also a notable amount of BBC content available for UK Netflix users only). As well as protecting the broadcast rights and licenses for companies, geo-blocking can also be used to enforce different prices for services in different regions. The main example of price discrimination is airline prices – but they aren't the only culprits, many companies charge customers in developed countries notably more for the same services.
How Does It Work?
Geo-blocking relies on the transmission of your unique IP address in the request for service. Basically, your computer requests permission from a server, and included in that request is the IP address. Your IP address contains, amongst other things, your geographic location, and thus the server is able to process your request accordingly to where you are. So, if the server detects you are in a region which is not allowed certain content it will either not respond to your request or direct you to a page to tell you that the service is unavailable where you are.
There are a few ways around geo-blocking. The most common way is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which hides your real IP address. Instead, it uses an IP address from its (the VPNs) own server. This fools the website you are connecting to into thinking you are in a different location and gives you access to content you can't access from your actual location. VPNs remain the most common bypass method for geo-blocked content, but because they use encryption to make secure connections they can slow down your connection speed – not always, but it can happen. Some sites out there, such as SkyCity Casino can only be accessed using a VPN.
Other ways to access geo-blocked content include the use of Smart DNS which masks your location when it detects that you are accessing restricted content. It does this by replacing any data which can be linked with your location with data associated with the location of the content you want to access. A proxy server can bypass geo-blocking by masking your IP address and by caching website information for easy repeat access – however whilst they do this they do sacrifice security and rely on the bandwidth restrictions of their server to determine connection speeds.
Is Geo-Blocking Legal?
Well, it depends on the region which is using it. In many areas such as the US, Australia, and Canada it is widely accepted as a way to enforce content compliance on the part of broadcasting companies as well as ensure that copyright and licensing laws aren't breached. However, the European Union has recently banned what they call “unjustified geo-blocking” – this offers a loophole that can be exploited by users and content providers alike. There are also steps being taken to make sure that content available for one member state should be available across the EU. More sinister examples of geo-blocking include the restriction of what is considered dangerous or subversive content and banned by a government. Examples of this include Egypt restricting content during the Arab Spring protests, and Syrian content being restricted or suspended during the Syrian Civil War.
Whether geo-blocking is the result of license laws, price manipulation, censorship or profit, there are ways to bypass it. The legality of geo-blocking and the circumvention of it are pretty woolly, to say the least. For many individual users, however, it is simple enough to find a way around it, and to access all the content they want – and to avoid the annoying frustrations of those ‘Unavailable in your country' messages.