The reasons why geo-blocking must be stopped


Preventing a browser from defaulting to local versions of websites isn't exactly difficult. "Advances in technology have made it quite easy to bypass old location-based business models, or 'geo-dodge', as people are calling it," says Thomas. "Because most geo-blocking is based on the IP address of a computer, it can be defeated by any method that alters or hides your IP address, such as a VPN or Proxy Service."

There are hundreds of ways of doing this, though it remains a 'giant grey area', according to Thomas, who says: "Its legitimacy remains questionable."

Henry Thomas, Senior Web Developer for Postcode Anywhere

Henry Thomas, Senior Web Developer for Postcode Anywhere

It can also be rather pointless once you reach the checkout page of a foreign retail website. "Setting up a private VPN connection allows internet users to send a request out which bypasses geolocation restrictions and appears to originate from another location," says Sullivan. "While this practice is reasonably widespread, many retailers are restricted to specific shipping locations and consumers may therefore end up being able to access a website from another country without being able to get their purchase delivered to their home."

There's another dimension, too – IPv4 addresses can be more accurately pinned down than newer IPv6 addresses. Despite that, a less accurate decision on an IPv6 user's geographical location is still made to restrict access to data from specific regions.

How could the EU enforce 'geo-freedom'?

It may seem laudable to try to protect and promote the 'permission-less innovation' championed by the internet, but is an EU-only digital single market a good idea? "The implicit danger of any region-bound proposal for 'geo-freedom' is that it means creating a network which acts as a subset of the internet," says Sullivan. Creating a tightly controlled network within the EU where geo-blocking is banned will create a geo-blocked experience open only to Europeans. That in itself is not sustainable.

VPN connection

VPN connections are being used to access geo-restricted online video

"If internet users want to tap into the EU-only market from abroad, they will," says Sullivan. "It's impossible to implement the technological capabilities involved in controlling access to the network without sacrificing the capabilities of the internet itself. The EU would find it simpler to work towards a common worldwide market instead of just focusing on EU member countries."

There's also an issue with mobile phones. At present, licensing coupled with the rudimentary geolocation tech used in phones means it's impossible to use the BBC iPlayer when outside of the UK, despite the user having paid the licence fee, and so having a wholly legitimate claim.

Phone users crossing from, say, France into Switzerland – which is not in the EU – would have similar problems. The digital single market would break down at the EU's borders. Can more advanced geolocation and roaming tech change that? It's going to have to. If people from outside the EU will break in and benefit from the vast digital single market, then it's only fair that those inside the EU get to break out and still get the benefits.

The classic case is Netflix. Although the company has different front-ends for each country it operates in, content is available depending on copyright and licensing deals, which are highly geographical. They date from the days of discs, and are firmly entrenched.

"Many people may turn to VPN connections to access online video services from outside the country in which they operate," says Sullivan. "The majority of laws and regulations in place for companies operating on the internet are firmly geographically-bound, but these don't translate well over to the internet."

Regulations that promote wider geo-freedom are well-meaning, but naive, ignoring commercial and contractual history. "There is a deep tension as countries try to make national laws fit with existing technological innovation," says Sullivan. "This technology is not in itself well-mapped to nationality and geography-focused laws."

While geolocation technology is restrictive, doesn't work well, is easily circumvented if you know how, and is based on outdated contractual habits, an EU-only attempt to free the internet will struggle to be effective.

Global industries with entrenched ways of doing business might not like it, but the unconstrained spread of VPNs on smartphones will likely make global geo-freedom a reality in the long run. All national and intergovernmental borders are being digitally disrupted by the internet. Why fight it?

Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance tech, travel and space journalist based in the UK. He’s been writing regularly for Techradar since it was launched in 2008 and also writes regularly for Forbes, The Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, Sky & Telescope and the Sky At Night magazine as well as other Future titles T3, Digital Camera World, All About Space and He also edits two of his own websites, and that reflect his obsession with travel gear and solar eclipse travel. He is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners (Springer, 2015),