You have probably had the experience of trying to stream a video or open a site just to get the message saying something like “this content is not available in your country”. What happens in such a case, is that you get geo-blocked. Happens to all of us sometimes.
Geo-blocking refers to technology and processes involved in restricting access to particular online content based on the geographical location of the user. There are reasons to do it, both good and bad, and there are ways to bypass it. Let’s look into what can be done if what you need lies out of your reach due to geo-blocking.
How does geo-blocking work?
In order to choose the best way to bypass geo-blocking one needs to get a sense of what it is and how it works first. Geo-blocking works by utilizing internet protocol (IP) addresses. All the devices surfing the net have an IP address assigned to them. It is a string of numbers that helps to identify where particular traffic is coming from.
An IP address is much like a physical address in that it depends, in a wider sense, on the actual location of the device. Therefore, if you go to a different place and connect to a new network, your device will have a different IP address.
You get your IP address from your internet service provider (ISP) or a mobile network provider. The assignment of IP addresses is overseen by internet assigned numbers authority (IANA) globally and regional organizations locally.
The main function of an IP address is to locate the device and provide a pathway to interact with it. All this also makes geo-restrictions possible since the numbers of an IP address indicate the location of the device. Seeing this, the host of the content you are trying to access may choose to block you or employ some other restrictions and content adjustments.
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What is the purpose of geo-blocking?
Now you know that seeing where you’re coming from websites and streaming services can restrict access to their content. But why would they do it? What is the point of discriminating against people like that? And is it even legal?
The answer to the last question is yes. What makes geo-blocking legal and even required in some cases are local laws and government policies. However, bypassing geo-blocks is also not generally illegal, although it might get you in trouble with your totalitarian government if you happen to have one. This brings us to both justifiable and bad purposes of geo-blocking.
Enforcing license/content regulations
One of the justifications for geo-blocking is the enforcement of copyright restrictions. There may be licensing agreements that restrict digital content providers from distributing something outside specified geographical regions.
For example, entertainment companies based in Belgium might only hold the distribution rights of particular material within the European Union. Thus, the websites of these firms will stream content for Belgium and other EU countries as per the licensing deals. But the content owners will try to block any traffic from the US, Australia, and anywhere else in the world.
Aside from licensing rules, what leads the video streaming industry to employ geographical restrictions is a different cultural outlook on what is relevant and appropriate. Streaming sites might have digital content that is fine in some places of the world but offensive to others due to particular cultural or religious beliefs.
Additionally, websites might want to make sure that they follow local laws in restricting illegal content. Different countries have different laws and regulations, thus what is perfectly legal in one place might be outlawed in another. A classic example of this is online gambling, which is allowed in some but banned in many other countries.
As such, to stay on the good side of governments all over the world, websites and streaming service providers might apply geographic restrictions to their websites.
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Dynamic pricing or price discrimination is not geo-blocking in a direct sense, but rather a variation of it. In such a case you are not getting geo-blocked from accessing the content of the website, but rather from accessing its fair pricing.
Online stores might display different prices for their products or services based on where you are. This is done due to the expectation that people in some countries are willing to pay more for particular merchandise than others. Although online retailers might argue that in some cases the higher prices are caused by additional shipping expenses or the cost of doing business with specific countries.
However, this isn’t always the case as has been shown by the investigation into the “Australia tax” back in 2013. The inquiry led by the Australian government has shown that IT products, such as those sold by companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe, were consistently overpriced for the Australian citizens. Deliberate dynamic pricing enabled by geo-blocking was named as the root cause for it.
Protection from malicious traffic
One might want to adopt geo-filtering in order to protect their website from fraud attempts or other malicious traffic. Such harmful attempts sometimes have clear origins within a particular country or region.
If you are a website owner, you might notice that there is a lot of suspicious traffic coming to your website from a particular country. This is especially easy to notice when the content of the site is clearly meant and relevant only for local audiences. For example, if the website is only in the local language and this language is not widely used in the country from which the traffic is coming.
In this case, using geo-blocking to prevent malevolent actors from harming your site or other internet users that visit it is completely understandable and justifiable. Thus, you may choose to entirely restrict particular countries from accessing your content.
Suppression of information
The worst for last. Internet censorship is used as a tool of oppression by authoritarian governments. Such governments restrict independent media companies in their own countries and deny access to the sources outside the country by utilizing geo-restrictions.
Having such restrictions in place governments become the only source of information for the population and thus can tell them whatever helps them to stay in power. The effects of the Great Firewall of China clearly show what happens when entire generations lack access to a different point of view.
The many legislations of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that allowed them to completely repress the free flow of information were partly enabled by such technology as geo-blocking. As the Chinese population was no longer able to access search engines and media outlets that would not play by the CCP’s rules, their ability to expand their view of the world diminished extremely.
Russia has been slowly heading in the same direction for a few years now. And the global outrage caused by the disastrous invasion of Ukraine has only accelerated their efforts to shut off from the world under a new digital iron curtain.
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How to get around Geo-blocking? 4 Ways
The latter examples of how populous countries can be held hostage within an information bubble by their own governments clearly show the dangers of geo-blocking. And the necessity to have access to the geo-blocked content as well.
When the government is not so oppressive, they tend to even promote unrestricted access to digital products by their population. Remember the “Australia tax”? One of the proposed strategies to fight against it was educating Australians on how to bypass geo-blocking. Let’s use this power of education by looking at the 4 well-established ways of getting around geo-restrictions.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A popular way to hide your IP address and thus your location is by utilizing Virtual Private Networks (VPN). When you use a VPN, your traffic goes to a server before reaching its intended destination. This traffic as well as the response from the website is also encrypted as it moves between you and the host and VPN servers. This creates a secure tunnel for your requests that cannot be easily breached from the outside.
Some VPN services even boast military-grade encryption, meaning that your online activities are completely secure and private. However, this also has the downside of slowing down your device. VPN service providers work on mitigating this problem but thus far it can still be noticeable in some cases. Additionally, there may be technical problems with decryptions that will further delay your connection.
Nevertheless, the benefits outweigh the potential issues, as a VPN allows you to remain anonymous online. And part of the benefits of this anonymity is that it enables you to bypass geo-restrictions. Many VPN services will allow you to choose the country through which you want your traffic to be directed, making any geographically specific content available to you.
Another solution that can provide you with private internet access is proxies. Proxy servers work much the same way as VPN in that they don’t send your request directly to the website. First, your traffic goes to a proxy server that gives you another IP address, thus hiding your real one. Only then the proxy makes a request to the website and gets the content from it.
From the website’s perspective it’s not you but another IP address or one of a pool of them within the proxy servers that are making the requests. This also lets you bypass geo-blocking as the IP addresses might point to a different country that is not blocked from accessing the content.
The main difference between proxy servers and VPNs is that some of the former do not encrypt the traffic. This allows proxies to avoid the reduction in speed that can be an issue with VPNs. Arguably, this might make VPN the safer option overall. However, for geo-blocking purposes, proxies from professional and well-established providers are completely safe as well. These providers usually also provide some form of encryption.
The Onion Router (TOR) network
The Onion Router or Tor browser is open-source software that allows you to browse the net with maximum privacy. Whenever you browse for something online using TOR, your traffic is sent through 3 random servers and encrypted at every stop. This makes for protection of privacy that is multi-layered, like an onion.
The main idea behind the TOR network is completely hiding your identity as you are browsing the internet. It can also hide internet traffic even from such entities as internet service providers. Naturally, this also means hiding your geographic location. However, TOR redistributes your traffic at random, thus it is not very customizable when you need country-specific content.
Aside from an IP address, your device also has a DNS address. DNS is short for Domain Name System, which is the system of translating human-friendly hostnames within DNS servers into machine-readable numbers that make up an IP address.
DNS addresses can also be used to determine your location and thus geo-block you. Smart DNS or DNS changers are services that can change your DNS address into one reflecting another country. Just like changing an IP address, this allows you to access content that is not streamed in your geographical region.
It is important to note that using smart DNS does not mask your real IP address and does not encrypt your data. Thus, it is only able to bypass geo-blocking and do it without losing speed, but it is not meant for internet security or privacy. Sometimes VPNs and other services have DNS changers already implemented as an additional feature.
To sum up
For a common internet user who means no harm and just wants free access to all kinds of internet content, getting geo-blocked can be very annoying. And in some cases, it is outright unjust and harmful. Luckily, there are ways to go around it and access the geo-restricted content.
Most of the aforementioned methods can not only bypass geo-blocking but also help with the overall internet security. However, it is worth noting that people hellbent on repressing the internet always come up with new ways to make it harder to overcome these restrictions. This only means that we will have to keep creating and finding new ways to freely access content on the world’s greatest informational resource.
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