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 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 company Time Warner had already licensed exclusive rights to HBO 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 CraveTV). 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 also be used to enforce price discrimination within online stores, 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.
Geoblocking can be used for other purposes as well, such as blocking access from countries that a particular website is not relevant to, voluntarily blocking access to content or services that are illegal under local laws, or to control malicious traffic.
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.
- Abdou, AbdelRahman; Matrawy, Ashraf; van Oorschot, Paul (June 2015). "CPV: Delay-based Location Verification for the Internet" (PDF). IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing. 14 (2): 130–144. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.696.691. doi:10.1109/TDSC.2015.2451614.
- "Global mode spat: We've got the legal paperwork". TelcoReview. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
- "HBO Now users outside US to be 'cut off'". 21 April 2015. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- "HBO is cracking down on Canadians accessing streaming service HBO Now". Financial Post. 22 April 2015. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- "Netflix VPN access locked down for overseas users". CNET. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- "Sony Pictures mad at Netflix's failure to block overseas VPN users". Ars Technica. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- "The 'Australia tax' is real, geo-blocking to stop". ZDNet. Retrieved 25 June 2015.
- "IT pricing: DBCDE tells inquiry geoblocking legislation problematic". Computerworld Australia. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- "DraftKings Leaves Door Unlocked for Barred Fantasy Sports Players". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 November 2015.
- "How to block traffic from other countries in Linux". ITWorld. 27 December 2013. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
- "New Zealand ISP's 'Global Mode' gives users access to Netflix and more". CNET. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- Szklarski, Cassandra (10 February 2014). "Some U.S. viewers turn to CBC amid complaints about NBC's Olympic coverage". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 12 March 2014.
- "New Zealand ISPs may be sued for letting users bypass geoblocks". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
- "In New Zealand, a legal battle looms over streaming TV". Computerworld AU. IDG. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
- "Bell Media president says using VPNs to skirt copyright rules is stealing". CBC News. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
- "Hulu attempts to block international viewers who use VPNs". Engadget. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
- "BBC blocks international iPlayer viewers ahead of US launch". Wired UK. 20 October 2015. Retrieved 19 November 2015.
- "Netflix says it will do more to stop customers from bypassing country restrictions". The Verge. 14 January 2016. Retrieved 14 January 2016.
- "Site blocking laws could drag VPNs into the anti-piracy net". Retrieved 26 April 2015.
- "Australia passes controversial anti-piracy web censorship law". Ars Technica. Retrieved 22 June 2015.
- "Europe Will Abolish Geo-Blocking and Other Copyright Restrictions". TorrentFreak. 6 May 2015. Retrieved 6 May 2015.
- "EU announces plans to banish geo-blocking, modernize copyright law". Ars Technica. 27 March 2015. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
- "Europe's Geoblocking Decision: What You Need to Know". Bloomberg. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
- "Netflix, Amazon given quotas for EU-produced video, face new tax". Ars Technica. 25 May 2016. Retrieved 25 May 2016.
- Priday, Richard. "You can now use your Netflix subscription anywhere in the EU". Wired.co.uk. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
- "EU plans to let you stream your movies, TV and sport abroad". CNET. Retrieved 8 February 2017.
- "European travelers can now watch Netflix like they're at home". Engadget. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
- "Global Mode "completely legal" as CallPlus dismisses industry backlash". Computerworld NZ. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
- "Streaming TV rift heads to court in New Zealand". Computerworld NZ. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
- "NZ ISPs back down on anti-geoblocking support". Computerworld NZ. IDG. Retrieved 24 June 2015.