Geoblocking is the practice of restricting or blocking internet content based on your geographic location. This usually means restricting content based on which country you are in, and is most commonly associated with media streaming services such as Netflix.
In this article, we discuss why streaming services geoblock content and how they do it.
- Why do services geoblock content?
- How does geoblocking work?
- VPNs and geoblocks
- Is geoblocking legal?
- Is evading geoblocks allowed?
- Data portability in the EU
- Account and payment restrictions
Why do services geoblock content?
Almost all commercial streaming services offer content they don’t own the rights to. To show this content, they strike deals with the content owners (who are often the content producers).
Content owners maximize their profits by selling the right to show their content to broadcasting services around the world. These contracts typically include exclusivity clauses, as the broadcasting companies don’t want the content they’ve paid for to be freely available in rival formats (such as from international streaming services that operate in their area).
So when a content owner sells broadcasting rights to an international streaming service such as Netflix, the contract they negotiate will often restrict where Netflix can make that content available, depending on what other contacts the owner has negotiated with local services.
Some streaming services, including HBO Max in the US and BBC iPlayer in the UK, are only licensed to show content to their customers in a single country.
It’s worth noting that streaming services which create content, such Netflix, Apple, and Amazon Prime, are free to do as they wish with their own intellectual property. Consequently, Netflix, Apple, and Prime usually make their original and exclusive content available to all their customers at the same time and without restrictions.
How does geoblocking work?
Every device that connects directly to the internet is assigned a unique IP address by the internet service provider (ISP). ISPs almost exclusively serve a single country, and thanks to the common practice of assigning IP addresses in blocks to contiguous geographic areas, it’s usually possible to narrow your location down to around city-level accuracy.
And whenever you connect to an online service via its website or app, that service can see your IP address. So it knows where you’re accessing the internet from. This allows streaming services to simply block anyone who accesses their service (or restricted content within their service) based on your location.
VPNs and geoblocks
In principle, it’s fairly easy to bypass geoblocks. Technologies such as virtual private networks (VPNs) hide your real IP address and can make it look like you’re accessing the internet from elsewhere. However, we do not condone the use of Proton VPNfor the purpose of bypassing geoblocks.
In the case of VPNs, this “elsewhere” is the physical location of the VPN server you’ve connected to. So to watch content that is restricted to a certain country, you just need to connect to a VPN server in that country.
However, streaming services are very aware of this and actively try to prevent it. Some services may compile their own lists of IP addresses known to belong to VPN, proxy, and similar services. A number of commercial companies are explicitly in the business of compiling such lists. The streaming service then can simply block the listed IP addresses.
Some VPN services have found reliable ways to counter such blocks, but it remains a constantly evolving cat-and-mouse game.
Is geoblocking legal?
Yes. Content owners are free to make any deals they want with their licensees, including specifying where their content can be distributed. Streaming services are contractually obliged to enforce any agreed-upon restrictions, and if they don’t, the content owners may take their content elsewhere.
Is evading geoblocks allowed?
Depending on where the streaming service is based, watching georestricted content may contravene the services’ terms and conditions. You should therefore carefully read the company’s T&C documentation. It is also most probably contrary to the VPN’s terms and conditions.
Account and payment restrictions
Blocking content based on your IP address is the primary way that all streaming services georestrict their content. However, some platforms reinforce these technical blocks with additional tactics. The most common of these is to require new accounts to provide a domestic postal address and a domestic bank account or credit card.
For example, to create a Hulu account, you need to provide a US postal address and pay through an American financial institution.
At Proton, we think privacy is a fundamental human right. We therefore believe you should be empowered to protect your privacy online at all times, including while using streaming services.