Have you ever seen a warning “this content is not available in your country” on a streaming platform? Or maybe you noticed that the search results and advertisements look very different for different country settings. These differences are the results of geo-blocking measures.
What is Geo-Blocking?
Geoblocking (geo-blocking or geo-restriction) is a set of technologies used to restrict access to internet content based on geographical locations. Simply put, users might be prohibited access or see different content based on where they are.
Geoblocking engages when a virtual server receives a request from the IP address in the blocked country.
What’s the Purpose of Geo-Blocking?
Most of the time, the reasons are purely pragmatic. But at times, they can be malicious and self-serving.
Businesses require weighty financial reasons to justify going through the trouble of creating geo-specific content versions.
Geomarketing and brand management
Geomarketing is a subset of marketing efforts used by global companies. Users in different locations are shown different messaging, advertising campaigns, prices, and product ranges. Brands adjust their image and even names to fit local language, values, etiquette, and regulations.
Global retail, media, and tourism companies use geo-restrictions to apply market-specific terms of service and prices. You will still have access, but the content will be region-specific. Tourism companies show you location-based offers. iHerb.com does not show supplements to a country where one of its components is prescription-only.
Regional licensing and copyright
Most streaming media and services – sports, gaming, entertainment, books, gambling – have region-specific policies. The video-on-demand libraries of Netflix and Amazon Prime vary significantly between regions, and both implement significant anti-VPN measures. Prominent news outlets (i.e., CNN) adjust the news output according to the region. Software is also subject to region-specific licenses.
Resources and security
Smaller websites that only serve local customers by the nature of their business might block remote visitors to avoid traffic load from them. Some companies might block countries to shield themselves from “malicious networks,” albeit this misleading method primarily affects legitimate visitors.
Values and regulations
Geo-blocking may block access to pages involved in an activity deemed illegal in that country, like dating (e.g. Tinder is banned in Pakistan) or gambling. European Union countries commonly block websites – even large ones – if they do not comply with the European privacy protection laws (GDPR).
Suppressing the competition of government-controlled websites
Some countries enforce the use of censored, “compliant,” or government-owned alternatives like search engines, social networks, and messaging apps by blocking all “foreign” competitors. China, UAE, and Russia are well-known examples.
Censorship and propaganda
Sadly, sometimes geoblocking also becomes an enforcement tool of propaganda and other forms of public sentiment manipulation. In those cases, its purpose is to restrict the flow of information outside of the censorship machine. This kind of geoblocking is always harmful.
How Does Geo-Blocking Work?
Geo-blocking can use cooperative and oppositional geolocation.
In some cases, users benefit from being accurately geo-located: for example, when they want to receive location-based promotional offers or local weather updates. On Amazon, it can help the engine prioritize cheaper search results based on the delivery address.
Google is the middle ground; users self-identify with a specific location in Google search when they want to receive locality-adjusted search results. Google does omit some results based on the local policies, though.
In all other cases, the website or service has to identify the user’s location on its own. Geolocation services add costs and efforts, so many services rely solely on the geostamp in the IP address. In IPv4, the device’s IP address is assigned by the ISP (Internet Service Provider). The country, city, or postcode are included in the IP address header.
More advanced businesses employ additional measures:
- cross-reference the IP address with GPS location data supplied by your mobile device;
- check the IP address against a database of known VPN servers;
- cross-referencing Wi-Fi positioning, device’s MAC address, images metadata, or credit card information; examining neighborhood Bluetooth devices; using the device’s GPS data.
- analysis of the linguistic data and searches from the device;
- using paid and free databases that accumulate a historical record of the pairing of IP addresses with their GPS locations or location-specific services;
- paid and free databases which identify IP addresses potentially used in VPN services and anonymizers;
- analyzing routing patterns;
- and many other analytical and statistical models.
In extreme cases, like China’s Great Firewall, the domestic traffic is monitored for specific keywords and VPN routing patterns to prevent citizens from accessing undesirable websites and services. Local ISP complies with the censorship and enforces the policy on the government’s behalf.
Is Using Geo-Blocking Legal?
It is not illegal: very few rules place an obligation to show content to everyone or prohibit selective access to websites. However, different countries approach geo-restrictions differently, and some governments actively employ them for their agenda.
One of the fundamental principles of the European Union is the prohibition of any direct or indirect discrimination based on citizenship. Geo-blocking regulations prohibit:
- region-based redirection to another website without explicit consent of the user;
- giving different prices or payment methods based on the country of the user;
- giving unequal conditions to different EU members when selling digital goods or anything that gets home-delivered.
How to Get Around Geo-Blocking?
To bypass geo-blocking, you either go to the location where the page is available or appear to the website’s location services as if you are there.
The main types of tools for bypassing geo-restrictions are a proxy, a VPN service, a smart DNS, and the Tor browser. The principle is the same: hiding or masking your actual IP address.
- A Proxy server is an intermediary between the user and the server they are trying to access. The server will only see the proxy’s IP address and treat it as the request from the proxy’s stated country.
Transparent proxies identify themselves as proxies. Anonymizers or anonymous proxies do too, but they hide the originating address. However, proxies do not encrypt your data, so your private data or payment details might still be exposed.
- A VPN (Virtual Private Network) also reroutes the user’s request through a different IP address and encrypts the connection to protect private data.
VPNs are so popular that they receive the lion’s share of attention from streaming companies. Many IP addresses associated with VPNs get blocked regardless of their geo-stamp. So if you are choosing what to use: vpn or proxy – this would be an extra reason, as proxies are better suited for business level tasks like market research.
- Tor browser is a browsing application for the Tor proxy network. It is a series of volunteer servers that bounce the user’s request and encrypt its details, making it difficult to track the origin. Tor browser is simple to use, but the connection is slow due to the extra layers. The I2P anonymous network (I2P) is another anonymity-focused proxy network.
- Smart DNS (Domain Name Servers) and DNS changers help to bypass geo-blocks by rerouting the traffic through another location and assigning a new DNS to your router. Smart DNS will repeatedly use the same “masking” DNS, while DNS changer can use a different one for any new connection.
Sometimes you can change the DNS details in your router settings. However, they only mask the location, and all other information might get exposed.
None of these measures is a secret, and websites can and do detect the use of VPNs and anonymizers. They either block these connections or provide non-localized content.
Both geo-blocking efforts and the tools for bypassing them can have legitimate and fair uses but can be used with harmful intent. Seeking an unbiased, undistorted perspective or understanding of other nations’ points of view is where proxies and bypass tools can do a lot of good.