Geoblocking is used by companies to carefully pick which users are allowed to access their websites, products, and services, depending on where they live. It is also the reason why countless Internet users have turned to circumvention tools like VPN.
Thanks to geographically-based restrictions, the market of VPN providers is thriving. In this article, we are breaking down geoblocking to see how it works, why it exists in the first place, what is it suitable for, and how to get around it using VPN services and other tools.
Here is the summary of what we are talking about in the following text:
- What is geoblocking?
- Why geoblocks are good for business
- Are geoblocking circumvention tools legal?
- Examples of websites that enforce geoblocks
- How to evade geoblocks with VPN services
- Bypassing geoblocks with other tools
- In conclusion
What is geoblocking?
Geoblocking (also known as geofencing) is a form of Internet censorship enforced by geographical conditions. Websites can choose to restrict the access of particular users, depending on their current whereabouts. For example, a YouTube video uploaded in Germany may not be available to French residents.
This way, a website can contain several types of content and decide which users can access which parts of the material. It comes in handy for displaying prices in the currency of each visitor, producing targeted ads relevant to a user’s current location, and so on.
How it works
To apply geoblocking, it is necessary to pinpoint the location of the user who sent the request to the remote server. The server obtains the IP address of the client, runs it against a blacklist or whitelist, and then allows or forbids access to the user.
A blacklist means that the server knows the identity of IP addresses or ranges of IP address to block. All users are allowed to access the site, except for the ones on the blacklist. Geoblocking by blacklist is common for websites that have dealt with stressful or harmful events in the past, such as spams, floods or phishing attacks issued from a single IP or range of IP addresses.
A whitelist is more restrictive since it forbids the access of all users except for the ones on the whitelist. Geoblocking by whitelist is employed by websites which address a smaller audience, like how BBC iPlayer is only available for UK users but forbidden for the rest of the world.
Why geoblocks are good for business
Geoblocking is primarily used to filter the access of users interested in joining premium channels, usually with exclusive media content like movies and TV series. It acts like a bouncer that decides which people can get into a private club.
A lot of Internet users wonder why they cannot access the US Netflix library if they are not from the US, although they pay the same monthly subscription as US residents. It is essential to mention that, in these conditions, the users and countries left out are not at fault, as unfair as it may sound.
It is merely because of copyright and licensing rules. Pre-existing contracts between movie production companies and television broadcasters may specifically mention exclusivity rights. Before the geoblock can be disabled, those contracts must expire or be renewed.
In addition to exclusive premium services, geoblocking is used for safeguarding websites against hacker attacks, setting varying prices (price discrimination), and regulating local laws for specific activities (like online gambling).
Further, it can enforce location-aware data, like prices displayed in your currency, targeted ads, POI recommendations, or intelligent blog sites with attractive headlines (e.g. something you might find relevant happened in your country).
Are geoblocking circumvention tools legal?
It depends on the copyright laws of each country.
Most agents from the entertainment business are against the usage of VPN services to evade geo-blocking. They argue that such tools violate copyright laws because the VPN provider is not authorized to allow the user access to certain content owned by movie productions and other media companies.
The terms of service must explicitly forbid the use of circumvention tools to unlock access to banned content. In fact, some groups are actively trying to block VPN and proxy usage without considering the legitimate reasons why such services would be used in the first place (e.g. while traveling).
When Sony Pictures was hacked in 2014, it was revealed that the company’s president of international distribution described VPN services as being “semi-sanctioned piracy” when used to unblock Netflix. It went on to criticize the video streaming site that it did not take all the necessary precautions to block VPN users, like detecting and filtering rogue users by the payment method used at registration (so that US debit or credit cards allow only US Netflix, etc.).
Here are some famous examples of regions that approved laws related to geoblocking and circumvention tools used for evading geoblocks:
In 2015, the European Commission announced that it would adopt Digital Single Market by 2020, a policy part of the Digital Agenda for Europe 2020 initiative. Among other things, the policy intends to regulate equal access to online products and services among all members of the European Union.
It also contains a reform of the European copyright law and geo-blocking techniques, in an effort to prevent price discrimination. But an amendment in 2016 excluded copyright material governed by the laws of each country.
All of this means that it will no longer be legal for websites operating within the EU to promote varying prices by region. But circumvention tools will still be forbidden when used to view movies if it means violating the copyright laws of the movie’s production company.
On the bright side, Netflix and other similar services operating within the EU must continue providing access to the home country of subscribers even if they are traveling to other EU countries, thanks to the EU portability regulation.
In 2015, the Minister of Communications said that the activity of users who breach international copyright laws is not illegal under the Australian copyright law. He also acknowledged the practicality of VPNs when used to protect the online privacy of users, emphasizing that VPN providers cannot tell their customers what to do with such tools.
Nevertheless, an amendment was made shortly after, called the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015. It permitted courts to block websites that focus on enabling copyright infringement. Depending on the interpretation, the blocked sites can include VPN services with aggressive promotions toward evading geofences to unlock exclusive streaming content.
In 2012, the Canadian government approved an amendment to the Copyright Act, named the Copyright Modernization Act. One of its provisions requires Internet Service Providers to send a notice to their customers whenever they allegedly commit copyright infringement (at the request of the copyright owner).
Also, the ISPs must keep a copy of these claims for six months, in case the copyright owner decides to take legal action. Whether or not VPN providers should follow the same laws as the ISPs remained unclear.
Examples of websites that enforce geoblocks
Most video-on-demand services enforce geoblocking. It is unfortunately unavoidable due to national copyright laws: each country has its own copyright laws, and each movie production company has its own exclusive contracts with third parties, so it is impossible to please everyone without creating conflict.
On the bright side, it is essential to mention that these services are continuously looking for ways to eliminate the need of geofencing technology and make media content equally available for all subscribers, regardless of their country. After all, it is in their best interest to make more titles available to subscribers and maximize profits.
Netflix is currently the most popular video streaming service. The fact that it develops original films and TV series plays a significant role in this. In the first quarter of 2019, it registered over 148 million premium subscriptions worldwide. Most countries can access Netflix, except for China, North Korea, Syria, and Crimea.
In early 2016, Netflix announced that it would become more active in preventing paid customers from using circumvention tools to unlock Netflix libraries that are not normally available in their region. However, it has not taken any measures to detect and block VPN users based on the payment mode.
Since then, users from around the globe reported that they faced a streaming error when attempting to watch Netflix with an unblocker or proxy. Although the company denied that it was blocking VPN users, the Netflix error code M7111-5059 still appears on screens.
Launched in 2015, HBO Now is also a video-on-demand service available for US residents and particular US territories only. It had 8 million subscribers in March 2019.
Users outside of the US cannot access HBO Now due to local copyright rules. In fact, the HBO Now terms of service explicitly forbid the use of any technology designed to conceal your location or prevent HBO from finding out your position.
Unlike Netflix that has not taken any other measures besides blocking VPN users, HBO Now has contacted Canadians in 2015 to remind them how accessing the platform is banned outside of the US. Moreover, it threatened to terminate all HBO Now accounts associated with VPN or DNS services (without refunds).
BBC iPlayer is a video streaming website only available to UK users. It operates thanks to a mandatory TV license fee issued by the UK, which pays for the TV productions distributed by the BBC. Various rights agreements with third parties contribute to this as well. Therefore, only users with a UK IP address can access BBC iPlayer. Otherwise, the company could be sued for criminal offense.
When trying to view content on BBC iPlayer when you are outside of the UK, you will receive a message saying that “BBC iPlayer only works in the UK. Sorry, it’s due to rights issues.” The site is capable of detecting and blocking some VPN and proxy services, but it does not change its message.
Amazon Prime is a premium subscription service that adds extra features to the standard Amazon services. These include exclusive or cheaper services, such as ad-free media streaming, one-day or same-day delivery, free Twitch subscriptions, or flat-free grocery shipping. In 2018, the company said that over 100 million global users have subscribed to Prime.
Only US users can access Amazon Prime Videos. It is because each country has its own copyright laws that Amazon cannot overwrite. As such, users living in the UK would not be able to view videos from the US, for example. They would receive a “This title isn’t available in your location” message.
Hulu, a rival of Netflix, is another video streaming service that relies on paid subscriptions. In the first quarter of 2019, the company announced that it gained 28 million subscribers, including 26.8 million premium members (the rest were still on free trial).
Hulu is not available internationally, but only to US users (including Puerto Rico and US military bases). In fact, it is necessary to use a debit or credit card issued in the US at signup to be able to enjoy Hulu content.
The video streaming service is capable of identifying and blocking some VPN and proxy services. When this happens, you receive a message saying “Error playing this video. You appear to be using an anonymous proxy tool.”
In 2014, Hulu was blocking all VPN users in an effort to flush out pirates. But it did not tell apart the US users (who were allowed to use Hulu) from the rest. It meant that VPN users living in the US and preoccupied with protecting their privacy were forced to give up their VPN service, at least while accessing Hulu.
YouTube needs no introduction. It is, without a doubt, the video-sharing website with the most significant impact on Internet culture. It is no wonder that Google acquired the company. YouTube is currently the second most accessed website, right after Google. According to the site, over 1.9 billion users log into YouTube each month.
Unfortunately, numerous countries from all over the world block YouTube content, including North Korea, Russia, Turkey, Germany, and Finland. The reasons behind these bans vary, such as preventing social unrest, political or religious criticism, and breaking national laws (e.g. copyright, hate speech, national security). Many private and public institutions voluntarily block YouTube to eliminate distractions at school and at work.
How to evade geoblocks with VPN services
Since it is a type of online censorship, geoblocking can be evaded using Internet circumvention tools like VPN and proxy services. Both have the role of hiding your real IP address. Depending on service’s resources, you can assign a new IP address to your device, one that is greenlighted by the website you are trying to reach.
Here is how you can overcome geofences using VPN:
- Choose a VPN app that works with your favorite steaming service. If you are unclear about what service to go with, you can pick one of our recommendations. After intensive testing of multiple virtual private network services, we narrowed the list down to 3 VPNs that deliver excellent results and unblock most of the services available online. These are ExpressVPN, NordVPN and CyberGhost VPN.
- Buy a subscription, then download and set up the VPN app.
- Fire up the VPN, pick a server, and connect.
- Open your web browser and go to the blocked website. It should be available to your location now.
The new IP address is associated with a new location and broadcasted to the website. The server accepts the new information, so you can sneak in and view the content you wanted.
Therefore, if you want to access the US Netflix library, you need to connect to a VPN server from the US. If you are excited about BBC iPlayer but unfortunate enough to live outside of the UK, then you must connect to a VPN server from the UK.
At the same time, you should be interested in optimizing everything (in quality and speed) by picking a server closest to your location.
Here are our top three VPN recommendations for bypassing geofences and enjoying unrestricted video streaming access. Make sure to check out their reviews and ratings to find out more:
- How many services can ExpressVPN unblock? – 28
- What are the services ExpressVPN can unblock? – Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer, DAZN, ESPN, Facebook, Gmail, Google, HBO, Hotstar, Hulu, Kodi, Netflix, Pinterest, PlayStation Vue, Showtime, Sky Go, Skype, Sling, Snapchat, Spotify, Tinder, Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber, Wikipedia, YouTube, Vudu, Zattoo.
With more than 3,000 servers in 160 locations of 94 different countries, ExpressVPN is arguably the top of the food chain. It is easy to install and configure, does not save logs of your browsing activity, and has multiple levels of security, including OpenVPN support, kill switch, and DNS leak protection.
Typically, the VPN service encrypts all your traffic as soon as you connect to a server. But ExpressVPN has a unique feature called MediaStreamer, which allows you to connect to servers optimized for streaming without encrypting your traffic. This way, you can circumvent geoblocking by hiding your IP address but do not get slowed down by encryption.
- How many services can ExpressVPN unblock? – 29
- What are the services ExpressVPN can unblock? – Netflix, HBO GO, Flickr, Showtime, Google, Instagram, Gmail, Hulu, VKontakte, AskFm, Kodi, Tumblr, Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, Skype, BBC iPlayer, Hi5, Facebook, WikiLeaks, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Amazon Prime, Twitter, Sling, Snapchat, Tinder, Roku.
NordVPN has over 5,000 servers in 60 different countries. It adopts a no-logs policy, comes wrapped in an intuitive interface, and has several encryption tiers. Kill switch and IP leak protection modules exist, too.
The VPN application has many useful features, like P2P (for torrenting), Double VPN and Onion Over VPN (for enhanced security), dedicated IP addresses, and obfuscated servers (to conceal VPN traffic). But it also has SmartPlay, a feature that automatically configures your DNS servers to evade geoblocking and access streaming services.
- How many services can ExpressVPN unblock? – 24
- What are the services ExpressVPN can unblock? – Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Crunchyroll, ZDF, Globo, YouTube Red, BBC Two, Fox Sport, Canal +, Comedy Central, Channel 4, NBC, Pandora, CBS, Spotify, Telegram, RTL, MTV, Amazon Prime, BBC One, SkyGo, ORF, Player.pl.
With a zero-logging policy, CyberGhost VPN has over 4,000 servers in 61 countries. It comes with a kill switch, military-grade encryption (256-bit AES), DNS and IP leak protection components, along with OpenVPN support. The application is compatible with multiple devices and operating systems.
When it comes to evading geoblocking, the VPN service features streaming-optimized servers for each country of interest, including the US and the UK. As such, you just need to connect to the right IP address to enjoy streaming content.
Bypassing geoblocks with other tools
In addition to VPN services, you can experiment with other types of tools designed to help you bypass geoblocking and access media streaming services: proxy servers, Smart DNS, and Tor. Each has its pros and cons.
A proxy server works similar to a VPN application in the sense that it hides your IP address. However, most proxies do not encrypt your network traffic, which means they cannot secure your data. But encryption is not necessary for accessing video streaming services. And the benefit of no encryption is that you do not risk decreasing your Internet connection speed and experiencing lags during streaming.
A wide array of proxy servers are free to use, and it is not necessary to install special software. On the downside, because users get proxy addresses from public lists, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and other video-on-demand services can effortlessly detect and block proxies.
A Smart DNS service does not hide your IP address but changes the location associated with your actual IP address. Therefore, streaming services have a more difficult time detecting and blocking Smart DNS. It may also be that, because they are so busy with VPNs and proxies, they overlook Smart DNS technology.
Just like the case of proxy servers, you do not need to set up third-party applications to be able to use Smart DNS. You can change the primary and alternate DNS server by tinkering with the built-in settings of your operating system. Your traffic is not encrypted so that you can enjoy seamless streaming, without hiccups.
Tor is a secure network that requires a bit of time and experience to get used to. But it offers a high level of privacy for browsing the Internet. Using Tor to evade geo-blocking might be overkill since it is not illegal to unblock streaming content (only frowned upon).
On the other hand, Tor is an excellent solution for getting around geofences to circumvent government censorship in countries with strict Internet policies. It is equally useful for downloading or uploading torrents with questionable copyright material.
Geoblocking is practical for businesses because it allows them to deliver creative content based on the current whereabouts of the user. But it also comes with inconveniences, since users who pay for the same subscription to a video-on-demand service cannot access the same titles. However, you can resort to powerful VPN applications to bypass geoblocks and gain access to unavailable media.
What are your favorite tools for bypassing geoblocked pages? Or perhaps you have unusual tips that you would like to share with other users just like you. Let us know in the comment section below.