What is geo-blocking and how does it work?

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8 min

Here are a few common scenarios you might have run into while going online:

  • You’re scrolling through social media, everyone’s abuzz about a new show on a popular streaming platform. Excited, you log in, only to be met with disappointment—it’s not available in your region. 
  • You’re on holiday overseas and need to make an urgent transfer, but you’re blocked from signing into your banking account.  
  • You’re attempting to buy a heavily discounted product online, only for you to discover it’s not available for shipping to your country. 

These are all examples of geo-blocking: the practice of restricting content access based on geographic location. 

Most familiar in the context of media streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and Hulu, geo-blocking spans across various online platforms. In this article, we’ll explore why and how these restrictions are enforced and their implications for global access to digital content.

What is geo-blocking?

Geo-blocking is a digital boundary that restricts access to internet content based on a user’s geographic location. It’s a way for content providers to control who can access their services or products. Licensing agreements, regulatory requirements, or business strategies often drive the practice. For instance, a streaming service might only have the rights to show a particular movie in certain countries, leading them to geo-block it elsewhere.

How does geo-blocking work?

When you access a website or service with geo-blocking, it first examines your IP address, which is linked to your geographic location. IP addresses are distributed regionally, so they serve as a primary indicator of where you are in the world.

In rarer cases, for greater accuracy, geo-blocking might also analyze your device’s GPS data, if available, or Wi-Fi signals. GPS provides precise location data, especially useful on mobile devices, while Wi-Fi triangulation uses the relative strength of nearby Wi-Fi networks to estimate your location.

After determining your location, the geo-blocking system then applies pre-set rules based on that location. These rules can include restricting access to certain content or redirecting you to a regional version of a site. The sophistication of this system allows it to enforce restrictions not just by country but even within smaller regions or cities, based on the specific location data it has gathered.

Read more: How to change the location on your iPhone 

What’s the difference between censorship and geo-blocking?

Many people mix up censorship with geo-blocking as they appear similar at first glance—they both restrict what you can see or do online. But they’re different beasts with different motives.

Censorship is when governments control what can be seen, read, or shared, often to clamp down on sensitive topics or dissent. It’s common for authoritarian governments to heavily monitor and restrict internet access, blocking foreign news and social media to control the narrative and limit public exposure to external influences. Censorship is about control and often has political or social motives. 

Regional rules can also discourage companies from making their service available, as they would rather avoid fines or other issues. This can be seen as a form of self-censorship.

Read more: Internet censorship: What is it, and how does it happen?

Geo-blocking, on the other hand, is a technique used by companies to restrict access to their content based on your location. The reasons here are usually legal or business-related, like licensing agreements for a TV show. It’s not about controlling information or ideas, but more about managing who can see what and where, often with the goal of maximizing profits.

Common examples of geo-blocking

Geo-blocking shapes our online world in many ways. Here are some of the most common examples across various platforms and industries: 

Streaming services 

Movie and series streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Peacock, Max, and Amazon Prime, often restrict access to specific shows and music based on geographical location, driven by licensing agreements. For instance, a show available on Netflix in the U.S. might not be accessible to viewers in Europe or Asia. 

A common reason to restrict a show in a specific country is the show is being broadcast on a local television channel. That TV network is not going to want it to be available for streaming, hurting its viewership (and ad sales), and has likely struck a deal with the distributor to prevent that. 

Similarly, music streaming platforms like Spotify may also limit access to certain music tracks and artists based on the user’s location due to licensing restrictions. 

Another classic example of geo-blocking based on content licensing involves sports streaming. For instance, BBC iPlayer is only accessible within the UK, while Sling TV is available exclusively in the U.S. F1TV, offering live Formula 1 races, varies its content availability depending on the viewer’s country, due to broadcasting rights.

Online retailers

Some e-commerce sites restrict sales to certain countries or regions due to legal or regulatory requirements. For example, certain products may not be available for purchase by customers in countries with import restrictions on those products.

News websites

News platforms also use geo-blocking, where access to certain articles or sections of the site is limited to users from specific countries. This can be due to the relevance of the content to certain regions or regulatory reasons.

Online gambling and gaming websites

These sites often use geo-blocking to comply with local laws and regulations. In countries where online gambling or gaming is illegal, these websites may be blocked.

Banking and financial services

Banks and financial institutions sometimes employ geo-blocking for security reasons. Accessing your banking services from a foreign country might trigger security protocols, limiting your ability to use these services while abroad.

Government services websites

Many government websites employ geo-blocking to restrict access to certain services or information to residents within their jurisdiction. This could include access to welfare services, legal documents, or official government communications.

Software services

Companies may restrict access to their software in certain countries due to export controls or licensing agreements. This can affect a range of software, from entertainment to business applications.

For example, recent changes to the U.S. Export Administration Regulations (EAR) have led to stricter controls on the export of encryption software. These regulations impact many software products produced or hosted in the U.S., requiring companies to adhere to specific export controls and licensing requirements. These types of measures are often taken to comply with national security concerns or international agreements.

Data protection laws

Data protection laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union, can also influence geo-blocking practices. Websites and online services that don’t or can’t comply with local data protection laws in certain regions may opt to geo-block access from those areas. This is a preventive measure to avoid legal implications associated with non-compliance.

For instance, a website that doesn’t meet the GDPR’s strict requirements for handling the personal data of EU citizens might restrict access from EU countries. This approach helps the website avoid potential legal penalties while maintaining its operations in other regions where such stringent data protection laws don’t apply.

When geo-blocking can be problematic 

Geo-blocking plays a significant role in how we experience the internet. While it’s a legitimate business practice, geo-blocking often extends beyond entertainment to impact various aspects of our digital lives. 

Online shopping and market access

When it comes to e-commerce, geo-blocking can mean missing out on products or deals simply because of where you live. This limitation isn’t just about not getting certain goods; it’s about a lack of access to the global marketplace. It can even lead to price discrimination, where people in different regions pay different amounts for the same product.

Access to digital services and software

In the tech world, geo-blocking can restrict access to certain apps, services, or features. For professionals and creatives who rely on these tools, this can mean a significant handicap. Imagine a graphic designer unable to access the latest software update or a start-up that can’t use a specific cloud service because of their location.

Educational resources

Education can also be impacted. Students or researchers in some regions might find themselves unable to access certain academic journals or educational platforms due to geo-restrictions. This limits the exchange of knowledge and educational growth, creating disparities in learning opportunities.

Global perspectives and cultural exchange

On a broader scale, geo-blocking can also contribute to cultural and informational silos. When people are only exposed to content available in their region, it narrows their worldview. This can reinforce stereotypes and hinder cross-cultural understanding and exchange.

Professional and personal development

For professionals seeking to expand their skills through online courses or platforms, geo-blocking can be a barrier. They might find that certain courses or resources aren’t available in their region, limiting their professional growth and personal development opportunities.

Read more: Splinternet: From one internet to multiple webs

Is bypassing geo-blocks allowed?

While certain technologies can offer the possibility of bypassing geo-blocks, the legality and appropriateness of doing so depend on various factors—including your location and the specific content in question.

  • Legal landscape: Legally, the situation differs by country. Some regions have clear laws against bypassing geo-restrictions, especially for copyrighted content. However, in many places, the legal status of this practice remains ambiguous.
  • Service agreements: Most online services’ terms explicitly prohibit using tools to access geo-blocked content. While not typically a legal issue, this can in theory result in service restrictions or account termination.
  • Ethical considerations: There’s also an ethical dimension. Evading geo-blocks can undermine the business models and rights of content creators and distributors who rely on regional licensing.
  • Risk of penalties: Users should be aware of potential risks. While not common, penalties can range from losing access to a service to more severe legal consequences in certain jurisdictions.
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