Geo-blocking or geoblocking is technology that restricts access to Internet content based upon the user's geographical location. In a geo-blocking scheme, the user's location is determined using Internet geolocation techniques, such as checking the user's IP address against a blacklist or whitelist, accounts, and measuring the end-to-end delay of a network connection to estimate the physical location of the user. The result of this check is used to determine whether the system will approve or deny access to the website or to particular content. The geolocation may also be used to modify the content provided, for example, the currency in which goods are quoted, the price or the range of goods that are available, besides other aspects.
The term is most commonly associated with its use to restrict access to premium multimedia content on the Internet, such as films and television shows, primarily for copyright and licensing reasons. There are other uses for geoblocking, such as blocking malicious traffic or to enforce price discrimination, location-aware authentication, fraud prevention, and online gambling (where gambling laws vary by region).
The ownership of exclusive territorial rights to content may differ between regions, requiring the providers of the content to disallow access for users outside of their designated region; for example, although an online service, HBO Now is only available to residents of the United States, and cannot be offered in other countries because its parent network HBO had already licensed exclusive rights to its programming to different broadcasters (such as in Canada, where HBO licensed its back-catalogue to Bell Media), who may offer their own, similar service specific to their own region and business model (such as Crave). For similar reasons, the library of content available on subscription video on demand services such as Netflix may also vary between regions, or the service may not even be available in the user's country at all.
Geoblocking can be used for other purposes as well. Price discrimination by online stores can be enforced by geo-blocking, forcing users to buy products online from a foreign version of a site where prices may be unnecessarily higher than those of their domestic version. The "Australia Tax" has been cited as an example of this phenomenon, which has led to governmental pressure to restrict how geoblocking can be used in this manner in the country.
Other noted uses include blocking access from countries that a particular website is not relevant to (especially if the majority of traffic from that country is malicious), and voluntarily blocking access to content or services that are illegal under local laws. This can include online gambling, and various international websites blocking access to users within the European Economic Area due to concerns of liability under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
As with other forms of internet censorship, geo-blocking can be circumvented. When IP address-based geo-blocking is employed, virtual private network (VPN) and anonymizer services can be used to evade geo-blocks. A user can, for example, access a website using a U.S. IP address in order to access content or services that are not available from outside the country. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and BBC iPlayer are among the foreign video services widely used through these means by foreign users. Its popularity among VPN users in the country prompted Netflix to officially establish an Australian version of its service in 2014. In response to complaints over the quality of domestic coverage by NBC, along with a requirement for viewers be a subscriber to a participating pay television provider in order to access the online content, a large number of American viewers used VPN services to stream foreign online coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics and 2014 Winter Olympics from British and Canadian broadcasters. Unlike NBC's coverage, this foreign coverage only used a geoblock and did not require a TV subscription.
In 2013, the New Zealand internet service provider Slingshot introduced a similar feature known as "global mode"; initially intended for travellers to enable access to local websites blocked in New Zealand, the service was re-launched in July 2014 as a feature to all Slingshot subscribers. The consumer-focused re-launch focused on its ability to provide access to U.S. online video services. Unlike manually-configured VPN services, Global Mode was implemented passively at the ISP level and was automatically activated based on a whitelist, without any further user intervention.
Legality of circumvention for online video
Leaked e-mails from the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack revealed statements by Keith LeGoy, Sony Pictures Television's president of international distribution, describing the international usage of Netflix over VPN services as being "semi-sanctioned" piracy that helped to illicitly increase its market share, and criticizing the company for not taking further steps to prevent usage of the service outside of regions where they have licenses to their content, such as detecting ineligible users via their payment method. On 14 January 2016, Netflix announced its intent to strengthen measures to prevent subscribers from accessing regional versions of the service that they are not authorized to use.
In Australia, a policy FAQ published by then Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull, states that users violating an "international commercial arrangement to protect copyright in different countries or regions" is not illegal under Australian copyright law. However, an amendment to Australian copyright law allows courts to order the blocking of websites that primarily engage in "facilitating" copyright infringement—a definition which could include VPN services that market themselves specifically for the purpose of evading geoblocking. Prior to the passing of this amendment in June 2015, Turnbull acknowledged that VPN services have "a wide range of legitimate uses, not least of which is the preservation of privacy—something which every citizen is entitled to secure for themselves—and [VPN providers] have no oversight, control or influence over their customers’ activities."
On 6 May 2015, the European Union announced the adoption of its "Digital Single Market" strategy, which would amongst other changes, aim to end the use of "unjustified" geo-blocking between EU countries, arguing that "too many Europeans cannot use online services that are available in other EU countries, often without any justification; or they are re-routed to a local store with different prices. Such discrimination cannot exist in a Single Market." However, proposals issued by the European Commission on 25 May 2016 excluded the territorial licensing of copyrighted audiovisual works from this strategy.
On 1 April 2018, new digital media portability rules took effect, which requires paid digital media services to offer "roaming" within the EU. This means that, for example, a subscriber to Netflix in one EU country must still be able to access their home country's version of the service when travelling into other EU countries.
In April 2015, a group of media companies in New Zealand, including MediaWorks, Spark, Sky Network Television, and TVNZ, jointly sent cease and desist notices to several ISPs offering VPN services for the purpose of evading geo-blocking, demanding that they pledge to discontinue the operation of these services by 15 April 2015, and to inform their customers that such services are "unlawful". The companies accused the ISPs of facilitating copyright infringement by violating their exclusive territorial rights to content in the country, and misrepresenting the alleged legality of the services in promotional material. In particular, Spark argued that the use of VPNs to access foreign video on demand services was cannibalizing its own domestic service Lightbox. At least two smaller providers (Lightwire Limited and Unlimited Internet) announced that they would pull their VPN services in response to the legal concerns. However, CallPlus, the parent company of Slingshot and Orcon, objected to the claims, arguing that the Global Mode service was "completely legal", and accused the broadcasters of displaying protectionism. Later that month, it was reported that the broadcasters planned to go forward with legal action against CallPlus.
On 24 June 2015, it was announced that the media companies reached an out-of-court settlement, in which ByPass Network Services, who operates the service, would discontinue it effective 1 September 2015.
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