You’ve probably seen this caption some time or another on YouTube: “This content is not available in your country”. This is exactly what happened a few years ago in Germany, when copyright disputes between YouTube and the German authors rights society GEMA led to YouTube partially blocking content. The dispute reached its height at the end of 2016 but has since been settled, meaning users there can almost freely enjoy the content again.
But there are many other online portals and streaming service providers (e.g. Amazon or Netflix) that only provide country-specific offerings. Behind this lies the technology known as geoblocking — something that website operators employ to restrict access to online content on a region-by-region basis.
Read on to learn how geoblocking works.
What is geoblocking and why is it used?
Geoblocking is a technique that makes it possible to restrict access to certain online content or services based on the user’s geographic location.
Companies often use this geoblocking technique, based on tracking and geolocation technologies, to restrict access to their content to specific countries or regions.
Governments also use geoblocking to block access to certain content within their territory — for example, countries with restrictive regimes prevent people from using Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and other websites.
IP address checking
Geoblocking works by checking internet protocol or IP addresses, which are essentially your digital mailing address.
Did you know that each of your internet-connected devices has a unique IP address that distinguishes it from other devices? Among other things, this IP address contains information about your device’s geographic location.
The moment you access online content on your tablet, PC, Mac, or smartphone, the server being accessed checks the device’s IP address. If this server detects that you are outside of the region allowed for this content, access is blocked.
Examples of where geoblocking is used
We’ve already mentioned that geoblocking can be used with streaming service providers and also with online shopping. But even when broadcasting sports events, broadcasters sometimes use geoblocking.
Streaming service providers
Streaming service providers, especially Amazon Prime, Sky-Go, Netflix, and Spotify, use geoblocking to ensure that copyrights are not infringed. Ultimately, they’ve purchased licenses to provide the content from the production companies, which clearly define in which regions this content can be made available.
We don’t need to tell you that license costs can be very high — and the larger the region and audience, the more expensive it becomes. That’s why streaming providers use countless analysis tools to determine whether content (like a movie) can generate promising viewing figures and thus stable subscriber numbers in the respective target markets.
Streaming in the European Union (EU)
The “portability regulation” passed by the European Parliament in May 2017 paved the way for you to use your streaming service providers’ content outside of your place of residence or country — but only with a paid subscription.
If you have a paid subscription, you’re in luck. Thanks to this new regulation, since April 2018 you no longer have to do without your series, music, or live broadcasts during “temporary stays” in other EU countries. That’s because you are considered to be streaming the data as if you are at home.
However, if you want to use the content of your paid subscription outside of the EU, geoblocking takes effect leaving you with no other option than to suck it up and wait to satisfy your hunger for the latest content.
Because TV broadcasters often do not have international broadcasting rights for major sporting events such as Formula 1 or the Champions League, they use geoblocking.
For example, while Austrians can see all Formula 1 races of the 2021 season for free on ORF and Servus TV, German users are denied the races on Austrian free-to-air channels — unless they use a VPN service, but we’ll get to that later.
Commercial services and media libraries of public broadcasters
In the case of purely commercial services or the media libraries of public radio and TV stations, the portability regulation passed by the European Parliament isn’t mandatory.
Although these providers do not necessarily have to make their offering available to customers in all member states of the EU, they can sign up to this new regulation voluntarily. They are then obliged to stop geoblocking their content in other EU countries. However, this requires them to be able to verify your residency, so you’ll need to register and authenticate when accessing content.
Thanks to tracking, streaming providers can easily determine where you are consuming the content that’s being provided and where your actual home is. To check whether you’re actually in the region of the given address when using the content, the providers compare the current IP address of your device with the given address.
That’s why when taking out or renewing a contract, streaming providers require authentication information, including personal details such as your address, a credit card number, or other forms of payment from you. Providers can, for instance, request you provide them with a valid identification document.
To protect your data as best as possible, however, you should not reveal more about yourself than is absolutely necessary — so redact any personal data that is not required for verification purposes.
With the entry into force of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), websites can be regionally restricted or geoblocked.
If websites, such as online shops or streaming providers, do not comply with local data protection laws, they might be geoblocked. Since the GDPR came into force in the EU, websites previously accessible in EU countries can therefore be restricted regionally if the operators have not implemented the data protection regulations.
And this doesn’t just affect small sites that may not have the resources to be GDPR compliant; many well-known US websites are also blocked in EU countries because they do not comply with EU data protection regulations.
It’s quite common for online shops to use geoblocking, such as to offer their products and services at different regional prices or only in certain regions.
However, according to new EU regulations, online retailers are required to offer their products and services across the EU on the same terms.
That said, if, for example, you want to purchase a specific coffee machine in Germany via an online shop based in Switzerland (not in the EU), geoblocking can take effect and you may be redirected to the German version of the shop where this coffee machine might not be available or only offered at different prices.
Is geoblocking legal?
Since December 3, 2018, unjustified geoblocking has been banned throughout the EU with the enactment of the geoblocking regulation. That’s why each EU country has an enforcement authority to punish violations of this regulation. In Germany, for example, the Bundesnetzagentur (Federal Network Agency for Electricity, Gas, Telecommunications, Post and Railway) is responsible as the enforcement authority.
That said, there are actually some economic sectors where geoblocking is still legal within the EU.
Digital service providers that reproduce audiovisual information by means of video and audio which relates to copyrighted content or works may continue to use geoblocking. However, if you are registered with the particular provider and/or have a paid subscription, you must be given unrestricted access to the relevant content.
- Healthcare website providers that offer medical services or medication, for example, can legally use geoblocking.
- In financial services, banks can legally offer loans, insurance, or investments using geoblocking without violating the geoblocking regulation.
- In the area of gambling, geoblocking is still legal when it comes to regional lotteries, casino gambling, or sports betting.
- Transport services providers of long-distance flight, train, or bus travel, for example, are also not bound by the geoblocking regulation.
Can I bypass geoblocking?
By circumventing geoblocking, you may be violating some service providers’ terms and conditions that you’ve agreed to. These include:
– If, when using Amazon Prime, you use any technology or technique to disguise your own location to bypass the company’s geolocation tracking, this is a violation of Amazon Prime’s terms of service and may result in you being banned for an extended period or even indefinitely.
Geoblocking and virtual private networks (VPN)
We’ve already explained that you can use content and services in the EU — with exceptions — without geoblocking restrictions.
However, a VPN, like Avira Phantom VPN, can mask your IP address and encrypt your internet traffic to give you more privacy online. This can be important if, for example, you want to consume your streaming service providers’ content at your vacation destination using public Wi-Fi hotspots.
What’s more, using a VPN when away from the home address you’ve provided to a streaming service provider means you can sometimes use a faster data connection, making your movies and shows stream more smoothly.