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Suppose you’re a fan of streaming or roaming on the internet. In that case, chances are you’ve already met all users’ greatest foe: geographical blocking. Any time you get a notification that a site is not available in your country or that you can’t watch the advertised show on Netflix, that’s geo-blocking in full effect.
As a technical process, geographical blocking can have business benefits such as protecting licensing arrangements. It’s for this reason that you have to use a VPN with Netflix to watch a show. However, it’s most often used as a gate-keeping tool or system to keep information away from people in countries living under dictators or oppressive regimes. Let’s take a closer look at what geo-blocking is and how to bypass it.
Definition of Geo-Blocking
Geographical blocking restricts user access to specific sites or internet services based on the user’s location. It’s also known as geo-filtering, geo-locking, or geo-fencing. Instead of the internet serving as a global information network, governments engage in geo-blocking websites to split the internet into geographical areas, some out of reach of specific users. Geo-blocking is possible thanks to IP addresses, which make it possible to track internet users’ locations.
An IP address is a unique identifier that every device on the internet has. It’s a string of numbers periodically interrupted by dots that signalize to hosting servers the user’s geographical location.
Geo-blocking software uses geolocation and tracking tools to recognize your IP address, which performs a similar function to your home address. The only difference is that an IP address might be dynamic and change depending on your location and ISP. With an IP address, hosting servers know from which country you’re using your computer or smartphone. They prevent access to a site if its content is not available in your country.
Geo-blocking is not a new legal or business practice. Before the internet, local TV stations used geo-blocking to protect exclusive shows or sports matches. They would show a black screen during the live transmission or a different TV show for people in neighboring countries.
However, geo-blocking a website is arguably even easier for governments to do, which is why it’s often a point of heated discussion among owners of licensed content and their customers. In North Korea and China, geo-blocking is just one of many tools used by the government to censor unwanted content and withhold information. This is why more users are turning to VPNs like Surfshark to evade geo-blocking.
Geo-Blocking in Practice
Internet service providers (ISPs) and phone transmitters automatically assign an IP address to the customer connecting to the internet. They are not the owners of IP addresses; they merely assign them when a device connects to a different network.
Sites affected by geo-blocking have their online content stored on hosting servers. Server operators get your IP address when your computer accesses the hosting site. They decide whether your request to enter the site will be accepted or denied. Their decision is based on your location. If your country is not on the list of those with access to the site, server operators will reject your device’s request to enter the site.
There are several ways to get around geo-blocking, thus avoiding both dynamic pricing and country restrictions that affect content availability. All these methods revolve around hiding your IP address, which is not only useful for unlocking regional content, but also boosts your device’s security and keeps your location hidden. You’ll find software such as VyprVPN for geo-blocking prevention, among many other tools.
1. Proxy Servers
Proxies are servers that access your information and pass the results to your device. Your computer, laptop, or phone receives a proxy server’s address to circumvent regional blocking. If a proxy server is located in a country with access to licensed content, you can use it to gain access.
Most proxy servers are free and offer different types of anonymity. They are also easy to set up and retain good download and upload speeds. They don’t go the extra step to encrypt your data, which affects the server performance.
On the other hand, as proxies do not encrypt data during the geo-blocking bypass process, your browsing activity is much more transparent and visible than it would be with a VPN. You’re putting your privacy in danger when you use proxies, so additional precautions are advisable.
2. Smart DNS
Smart DNS (domain name server) obfuscates the user’s IP address when they open a webpage that would otherwise be geo-blocked. This is an international network of DNS servers where the user connects to any server in the chain. Smart DNS then hides your IP address. It reroutes your DNS requests to evade geographical blocking attempts by changing your virtual location.
Smart DNS employs one to two DNS addresses, and DNS changers modify your DNS upon every login. When people ask how to get around geo-blocking, many recommend Smart DNS or DNS changers, as the difficulty of setting them up depends on the DNS service. Everyone with the technical know-how can change DNS settings on their routers.
The downside of using Smart DNS is that your browsing and device data remains vulnerable. This system is great for hiding a location, but that is where their usefulness against regional blocking ends.
3. Tor Browser
Another popular tool against geographical blocking or for hidden site surfing is the Tor browser. This is open-source software in the form of a browser that connects with the Tor network via onion routing. It hides internet communication by sending it through a global network of computers that are called nodes.
The traffic data that enters the Tor network goes from one node to another, encrypting it several times in the process. The network decrypts the encryption layers around the traffic data when it leaves the node.
As a result, the sites you visit won’t know your location. This allows you to bypass geo-blocking that YouTube and other video content sites employ. Tor network is available on some VPNs like NordVPN for geo-blocking prevention.
Where the Tor browser falls short is that you need to have this browser installed to use the network with onion routing. This is a problem because the setup process is often intimidating for less experienced users. It can also significantly slow down your browsing speed depending on the number of computers (nodes) in the network. We recommend it for anonymous site browsing rather than streaming.
A virtual private network or VPN is the most widely used method of hiding personal data – including your IP address – and accessing geo-blocked sites. A VPN hides and encrypts your connection by transferring your traffic data via a server located in a different geographical region. For example, IPVanish and geo-blocking from Amazon Prime work well together, as this VPN evades Amazon’s geo-filtering software easily in most cases.
There are many benefits of using a VPN, such as general security and safety thanks to the most sophisticated encryption protocols. VPNs come with a user-friendly UI, which means they’re easy to set up, allowing you to quickly protect data on public and unsafe WiFi networks. Despite certain ISPs and countries attempting to block IP addresses that use VPNs, they are also mostly legal to use.
The main drawback of using a VPN is that it slows down your internet speed, as the data isn’t traveling directly to the hosting server. Instead, the VPN geo-blocking circumvention tech relies on your data first running through the VPN server. Here, the encryption protocols mask that data before sending it on to the hosting server. This additional movement of data affects the speed of your connection.
VPN servers can also become strained and slow down if they have to process too many users’ requests simultaneously. The highly encrypted data streams also move more sluggishly between servers, which affects the overall connection performance. And if the VPN service has too few servers, these servers can be easier for hosting sites to block. Typically, the best VPN for geo-blocking is the one with the most developed VPN server network.
Reasons for Geo-Blocking
There are plenty of reasons why geo-blocking has become such a widespread phenomenon across the world. Some of these reasons are justifiable, while others are clearly nefarious. We’ll take a look at them, as it’s vital to know why this practice exists and won’t be going away in the foreseeable future.
1. Licenses and Content Providers
License issues are among the most common reasons for geo-blocking on streaming and content delivery sites. License holders have the right to dictate the terms of distribution of their products. Companies that own licenses get to decide where the licensed content will be available and for whom. Every form of media revolves around licensed products, including books, movies, music, and TV and radio shows.
At the other end of this spectrum are licensing rights buyers. They have to follow the rules of the licensing deal and prevent the contents being accessible in specific regions with geo IP blocking services.
Entertainment and streaming companies such as Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and Amazon Prime make their own original content, for which they hold the exclusive license. They decide whether their latest TV show will have worldwide coverage or be unavailable in some places. All other content on their sites is copyrighted material, which they only publish according to the wishes of license holders. Some customers who are already paying for a streaming service use VPNs such as TunnelBear for geo-blocking evasion.
Football fans are well aware of this practice, as they’re used to specific matches being unavailable. The sports leagues that own distribution licenses form billion-dollar contract agreements with broadcast companies and online distributors.
Bidding among companies for distribution rights is frequent. As a result, some sporting events that were available last year on a specific TV channel might appear elsewhere this year.
The same goes for streaming platforms that buy and compete for distribution rights. This can result in changes to the geo-blocking on Netflix, or the provider removing TV shows from the lineup altogether. Distribution costs depend on several factors, such as jurisdiction and local taxes.
2. Contraband Content
Certain internet services and sites have to use geographical blocking as per legal regulations and laws in some countries. For example, online casinos regularly use geo-filtering to deter users from countries where access is banned. If they didn’t do so, these companies would break strict laws set by governments and gambling commissions, as in the UK. Many IT experts consider this to be using geo-blocking for best practices.
Sports betting online in the USA has long been prohibited, with geo-blocking preventing people from accessing betting sites. However, with recent changes in state laws, this is changing for the better, and fewer sites have to rely on geo-blocking measures for US citizens.
Blocking illegal content has its dark side too, as can be seen in current practices from China. The Chinese government uses the most widespread form of censorship known so far to prevent any dissent from the people. With the state-governed geo-blocking firewall, they ban foreign social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Google, and YouTube. The list of topics that are off-limits to the Chinese population continues to grow on a seemingly daily basis.
North Korea practices massive geo-blocking censorship over its citizens and keeps them separated from the rest of the world online. North Koreans only have access to the national intranet, called Kwangmyong. Access to the internet is reserved for the elite, most notably high-ranking government and military personnel.
3. Market Compartmentalization
The most damning reason for geographical blocking in the eyes of consumers comes from how large companies and corporations approach the global online market. Since these entities view the internet in geographical zones and regions, geo-blocking is the perfect way to enforce licensing rules.
As a result, price discrimination is widespread across the internet. The price of the same licensed content usually varies significantly between developed and undeveloped countries. This form of geo-blocking is regularly used in marketing; for example, entertainment streaming platforms may delay the release of a TV show in some markets.
Legality of Geo-Blocking
We often get questions like: is bypassing geo-blocking illegal due to the sheer scope of such online activity? Despite its many drawbacks, geographical blocking remains a legal tool to ensure that legally binding contracts remain in effect for business purposes.
Sites offering media content are most often targeted by such practices. This forces users to bypass geo-blocking for YouTube and other content providers. Geo-blocking also encourages the business practice of artificial item rarity, whereby hard-to-find content is more valuable than easily-obtainable media.
There have been some minor but crucial steps taken in battling geo-blocking on a global level. In 2018, the EU implemented geo-blocking regulations that prevent sites from limiting access to people within the EU based on their place of residence, place of establishment, or the customer’s nationality. The regulation could be improved in many ways, but it’s a step forward to give power to the citizens of the EU against geo-blocking streaming practices.
Many entities and companies have solved the way around geo-blocking, as these practices are becoming worse for internet users. All of the geo-blocking subversion methods we’ve mentioned will help you access restricted content, with some solutions offering a geo-blocking bypass for free. Overall, our recommendation goes to VPNs, which have made significant steps to provide the most robust tools to fight geographical blocking with minimal speed losses.