We’ve come to believe that the Internet is a place where we can freely share, view or upload content, regardless of where we live. As a society, we want to believe that we’ve erased physical boundaries in the digital world and it has created a level playing field for everyone.
But is this really true? Not really.
We’re still discriminated based on our location. When you live in a particular country, especially in a country like the U.S, China or the UK, you get to watch a ton of content. However, when you move to a different country, you have to give up your viewing preferences and choose from a small library that’s available for your country of residence.
Why do we have to face this discrimination? How do these sites know where we are located? What can we do to overcome this restriction. You’re going to get answers to these questions here.
What is Geoblocking?
Have you ever seen this message:
It’s because companies use a technique called “geoblocking” to prevent people in one country from accessing the content of another. Geoblocking is a practice that companies use to show you content based on your geographic location.
Let’s take the example of the BBC to understand geoblocking better. The British Broadcasting Corporation is a public service run by the British government. It is funded by British taxpayers and is available to all UK residents.
BBC content was originally broadcast through radio and TV only, but, keeping in tune with the changing media landscape, it started to make content available online too through a service called BBC iPlayer. This service broadcasts all shows, sporting events, on-demand movies and more, but only for people with a right to watch the BBC.
When you try to access this service from outside the UK, you get a message that says you can’t view this content in your country. The same happens with sites like Netflix and Hulu, too. Not only third-party shows and movies, but even Netflix-made ones like House of Cards and Longmire are only viewable in certain locations.
This can be pretty annoying if you’re on holiday and you want to watch your show of choice; it gets worse when you realize that EU residents pay more for Netflix while being able to watch fewer shows. Before going into how you can find a fix for geoblocks, let’s first understand how sites can identify your location.
How Does Geoblocking Work?
Every computer on the Internet has a unique numerical identifier in xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx format. This is called an Internet Protocol address, or IP address for short. Every time you make a request for a site, this number is sent along with the request, so the server knows where it has to send the content back.
These IP addresses are allocated to ISPs and they in turn give it to their customers. So, it reflects the geographic location of a computer to some extent. This is how any site can identify your location.
Why Do Sites Geoblock Content?
Segmenting the world into different regions makes it easy for Hollywood to release movies to one market at a time. Some movies even have a local flavor to cater to the local audience. All this maximizes the effect of promotional campaigns and results in more money into the pockets of producers.
Geoblocking is an extension of this idea. The licensing agreements that Hollywood producers enter into with streaming sites like Netflix and BBC iPlayer restrict what they can stream to different markets. To implement this agreement, Netflix and other sites use geoblocking as that’s the easiest way to meet these licensing terms.
That’s not all. Some online retailers charge for products based on where you’re located. A case in point is Apple that sells its AC/DC’s complete collection on iTunes for $229.99 in Australia and just for $149 in the U.S.
In this sense, Australian consumers have to face an unjustified price hike, simply because they live in Australia and not in the U.S. In fact, Apple is not the sole company that engages in this kind of discriminatory pricing. Adobe, Amazon.com, Nintendo and Lenovo have also come under scrutiny by Australian authorities for this practice.
Is Geoblocking Legal?
There are no clear laws surrounding geoblocking, but the EU is taking steps to protect its citizens from the worst of it. On 28 November 2016, the EU Council agreed on a resolution to ban unwarranted geoblocking among its member states because it believes any restriction based on the place of residence of an individual is discriminatory in nature.
Another initiative called the Digital Single Market Strategy was adopted on May 6, 2015 to end geographic-based restrictions on e-commerce. This strategy ensures that individuals and businesses can perform online activities and have the highest possible protection for their data, regardless of their geographic location.
Due to these measures, price or content restriction among EU member nations is greatly reduced. In this sense, the EU is leading the way in promoting fair practices in the digital world. In the U.S, companies like Netflix argue that geoblocking is essential to protecting the copyrights of artists and producers of TV shows and movies. PayPal too practices geoblocking. In a statement made to Bloomberg BNA, PayPal has said that:
“it does not permit the use of its service for transactions that infringe copyrights or other proprietary rights.”
If you look at the existing legislation, the Copyright Act of 1976 and its amendments protect copyright holders and determine the “fair use” of their copyrighted material. However, there is no mention of geoblocking in this legislation, which means, you can’t be sued for circumventing these geoblocks.
One of the main reasons for this legal ambiguity is the fact that services like Netflix stream their content instead of allowing downloads. So, it’s not clear if watching content online infringes existing copyright laws. The upshot is that if you want to circumvent geoblocking, you’re still on safe legal grounds.
How to Circumvent a Geoblock
Users worldwide have been using a few ways to conceal their IP address, so they can’t be denied particular content. Proxy servers are a popular way to get around geoblocking, as these servers act as an intermediary and pass on your request as theirs. This way, the receiving servers see only the IP address of the proxy server and not your IP.
While this works fine, there are some downsides that come with proxy servers, especially with respect to safety and security.
A better alternative is to use Virtual Public Networks or VPNs for short. This is a private network that encrypts your requests and tunnels them through a private network, so your IP address is not visible to anyone. We have an article detailing the differences between proxies and VPNs.
Besides these two options, there are also some services like Hola that allow end users to access BBC and other sites through a peer-to-peer network. However, it also comes with reliability and security issues. So, your best bet is to use any of our best VPN services to access the content you want. Here are some more examples that can help you to override your geographic restrictions.
Netflix, one of the most popular content viewing sites in the world, has extensive geoblocking controls in place. From a consumer’s perspective, Netflix offers a much smaller content library to users outside of the U.S. due to its existing licensing arrangements. For example, if you’re a subscriber in Hong Kong, you can’t view House of Cards, even if this is a Netflix original series.
This gives a compelling reason for fans of the Underwood’s chicanery to hide their physical location, so they can access this series. In fact, you’re not alone, if you decide to take this route. For years, Netflix subscribers have been using VPNs or web proxies to hide their IP address, so they can access more content.
However, using VPNs no longer works that effectively because in January, Netflix announced that it would be blocking VPNs too. We have an informative article on how to bypass this ban, so feel free to check it out to continue seeing your favorite shows on Netflix. Of course, you can always go ahead and jump toward our best VPN for Netflix article.
As mentioned earlier, The BBC iPlayer allows you to stream British content. But, it’s not available for those residing out of the UK. Even if you’re a British resident traveling abroad or an expat living in another country, you simply can’t access its content.
VPNs allow you to override this situation, so you can continue to watch your content, regardless of where you are. According to a report published on the BBC site, more than 60 million people outside the UK are watching BBC iPlayer for free, using VPNs or proxy servers.
It is estimated that in China alone, more than 38.5 million people access the BBC iPlayer app. The remaining come from countries like the U.S., Australia, Ireland, India, Brazil, France and Germany. A good number of them use VPNs to watch their favorite shows. And here are the top five best VPNs for BBC iPlayer.
YouTube is another site that has a staggering number of videos, but gives users the option to geoblock their uploaded videos.
Earlier, you could tweak the YouTube URL to bypass geographic locations. But, that doesn’t work anymore. So, you can look at using browser plugins like ProxMate, web proxies or reliable VPNs. There are also sites like UnblockYouTube that unblock any specific video for you. We have listed down a complete list of ways to unblock YouTube.
Youku is a popular Chinese streaming site that allows you to watch a ton of great Chinese and sometimes, even English shows and movies. But, it’s geoblocked and can’t be accessed outside of China.
If you love Youku or if you’re a Chinese traveling abroad, you can learn more about unblocking this site in our article. In fact, China blocks many sites. If you’re interested in learning more about Chinese geoblocking and ways to get around it, we have a list of VPN services for China.
In short, large entertainment companies like Netflix, Hulu, Youku and BBC iPlayer are using geoblocking tactics to ensure that their content is not viewed across countries. While this is justifiable to some extent, it’s not fair from a user’s point of view.
After all, you’re paying a subscription fee for the service, so it’s only right that you get to watch all its content. A good way to override this geoblocking is to use VPNs as they mask your IP address, so these companies can’t identify your exact location.
As a bonus, VPNs encrypt your data and send it through a private network and this means, you get extra security as well. Though sites like Netflix are looking to block VPNs, it’s not really a long-term solution because VPN service providers are coming up with ways to circumvent these blocks.
At CommQueR.com, we don’t think geoblocking is a good or lasting solution to protect licensing agreements and copyrights. A better way is to create new revenue streams where international viewers can pay a certain fee to watch their favorite content. But for now, VPNs are your best bet to get all the entertainment you want, regardless of where you live.
Please share your personal experience about geoblocking with our readers in the comments section. Thank you for reading.