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Geo-blocking On the Rise

The Internet used to look the same for everyone, but due to an increase in geo-restrictions, people have to face more obstacles to freely surf the web. This virtual space can look quite different to users in the U.S. compared to users in other countries. Some of the restrictions are enforced by governments, although private companies are also upping their game. People have responded and counteracted these limitations by using VPNs to access cross-border content and make it seem like they are browsing from another location. Getting around geo-blocking isn’t difficult when using a quality VPN service that can give you access to restricted content on Netflix and other similar websites such as VEVO, HULU, and HBO

The Good and the Bad

Geo-restrictions affect people from almost every country on all types of websites. This practice cuts users off from international communities and global markets just like government censorship does. As a result, it creates a fractured Internet where countries are trapped in their own bubble of content instead of sharing universal information commons. For example, people in countries with U.S. restrictions such as Syria, Cuba, Iran, and Sudan have access to significantly fewer websites. The same applies to users in Russia in China, although these countries are less affected.

Recently, BitMEX has restricted its services to Seychelles, Bermuda, and Hong Kong for regulatory reasons. Because these geo-restrictions are based on IP location, traders have set up VPNs in an attempt to bypass them. Nevertheless, many times it’s just out of convenience and carelessness. Some companies choose to block every user from one region to stop hacking attempts coming from there, instead of just increasing their security measures. Geo-blocking is not always nefarious, as sometimes companies use it to respect federal economic sanctions. Moreover, some shopping websites might restrict their content to visitors from other countries where they don’t deliver orders. Some media companies fail to comply with other countries’ privacy laws.

New EU Regulations

On April 1, 2018, the EU started a geo-unblocking campaign in an attempt to create and maintain free domestic trade. Fee-based providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Spotify are forced to give access to their services to the same extent even if the customer is momentarily in another EU member state than that of his place of residence specified in the contract. Moreover, restricting the number of devices from which you can access their content is not permitted anymore. This allows users to enjoy these entertainment services even when they are on vacation, studying in another EU country or doing business elsewhere.

With some exceptions, goods providers and online services have to set the same conditions for payment, delivery, or purchase no matter the nationality, residence, or shipment of the customer. However, region-specific conditions for delivery of goods can still apply, for example, delivery only within the UK. Even so, people living outside the EU or UK must have the possibility to order the products and have them delivered to a UK address or a place within the shipping range. Some services are exempt from these regulations, such as E-books, health services, sports events, financial services, video games, and certain social services.

Growing Interest to Access Information

The number of Internet users who are trying to access geo-restricted content has almost doubled the past four years, going from 8% in 2015 to 15% in 2019. The most sought after content is audio-visual and music. Young people are more interested in cross-border content, mainly because of lack of availability in their country of residence, but also because of their desire to have a wider choice. Despite the fact that people are thirsty for more information, according to data by Cloudflare, geo-blocking is on the rise. More than 37% of Cloudflare customers blocked their content in at least one country as of August 2018. The reality is using a numeric IP to estimate where a person is located is highly unreliable. This is causing some users to be wrongly denied access to blocked services because they appear to be somewhere where they are in fact not.

Even though many times blocking websites is just an inconvenience, other time it can cause real problems. For example, an Iranian student wasn’t able to apply to graduate school overseas because the admission website wasn’t allowing payment of application fees for people from Iran.

Geo-restrictions may also prevent a person from planning a trip abroad because of blocked travel websites, or even read the news from an international city. Bypassing geo-blocking isn’t difficult, although it requires a certain level of technical literacy. People are willing to do whatever it takes to overcome this discrimination based only on where they are when they connect. In the end, geo-blocking is ineffective, despite companies’ efforts to enforce it.