Content service providers have put in place measures to restrict access to content by geography. However, users are getting around these barriers to access content that is not available in their region. How are users doing this and why do service providers need to stop it?
by Jay Kearns
To comply with content licensing agreements, video streaming service providers use geo-blocking technology to limit content availability to their licensed territories. However, circumvention of these controls is currently rampant.
According to a 2019 study, 50% of Virtual Private Network (VPN) users employ them to access video content that is not available in their regions. With nearly a quarter of internet users using VPNs, there are potentially hundreds of millions of internet users accessing geographically restricted content.
Using VPNs might be the most popular route, but this is only one way that viewers use to bypass or circumvent geo-blocking measures.
What is geo-blocking, and why is it important?
Geo-blocking (a.k.a. geo-filtering) restricts access to online content based on geographic location. For licensed content such as streamed video, this aims to prevent content being accessed from regions outside of those permitted by the distributor. Although geo-blocking might be a source of discontent for end users, its primary purpose is to ensure that the content service provider complies with the terms of its licensing agreements with content owners.
For example, as of 29 November 2019, “The Office – US” is available on Netflix in the US, but in the UK the show is contracted to Amazon Prime. Although Netflix and Amazon have an international audience, they need to restrict access to this show by user location to respect the terms of their licensing deals.
Geo-blocking is also relevant to service providers that operate in a single region. For example, HBO operates a streaming service in the US and licenses its content to service providers operating in other geographies. For those service providers, it’s important that users in their home markets cannot access the HBO service. Once again, geo-blocking technology is used to help uphold these licensing agreements.
Hence, geo-blocking technology is essential to the integrity of a video service provider’s content security. Yet it isn’t failsafe. Depending on the strength of the technology being used, geo-blocking can be undermined by circumvention mechanisms.
Users seeking inaccessible content may try to evade geo-blocks with a variety of tools and techniques, some of which are readily available online.
Let’s look at the technologies being used to bypass geo-blocking.
How geo-blocking is circumvented
Geo-blocking typically works by locating the user based on their IP address. Users that are trying to escape detection will therefore seek to mask, change or hide this. Available technologies for this purpose include Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), proxies, and the Tor software.
VPNs provide a secure tunnel across the internet from the user to a VPN server at the far end of the connection. When using a VPN, the user’s IP address will be replaced by the IP address of the VPN servers. For example, if a user in the UK connects to a VPN server in the US, then IP-address geo-location will assume that user is in US.
VPNs are the most popular method used to circumvent geo-blocks as they are easily available and very easy to use, even to the most novice internet users. VPN software is readily available for common operating systems such as Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS. Some VPN providers also offer web browser extensions or router support.
As the most popular VPNs have a multitude of servers for major regions (such as US, UK, and Japan), separating these out from legitimate users in these countries is challenging.
Much like a VPN, a proxy will help a user bypass geo-blocks by masking their real IP address. Proxies do this by routing their traffic through a remote machine before it reaches the intended destination. The content service provider will then see the IP address of the proxy rather than that of the user. Proxies are often faster than most VPNs as they have no encryption.
Routing traffic through a proxy can be facilitated by the user changing their DNS (Domain Name System) settings to use the DNS server of a proxy service provider.
Tor is freely available software designed to hide a user’s real IP address. Tor, which is also known as “The Onion Router”, does this by routing and encrypting the user’s traffic through a multitude of servers making it almost impossible for anyone to discover the user’s real IP address. As the content service provider will only see the address of a Tor server, this can be used to evade geo-blocks.
Why geo-blocking circumvention is a serious issue for content service providers
Essentially, a content service provider without effective geo-blocking mechanisms in place will be unable to protect content rights and uphold licensing agreements. Insufficient credibility in this field can threaten future content licensing deals and, ultimately, limit the content available to the consumer on the platform.
Although it is not normally expected to have a 100% block rate, if a service provider does not actively try to combat the use of VPNs and other methods employed to view geo-restricted content, it faces the risk of contract breach. This could potentially lead to losing the rights to content and hefty fines.
Given the pervasive use of circumvention techniques, this makes geo-blocking circumvention testing a vital component of a service provider’s overall security and anti-piracy toolkit.
Regular testing the robustness of geo-blocking technology gives both service providers and content owners the confidence that geo-blocking has been implemented properly and is consistently meeting the specifications of a contract agreement.
Geo-blocking circumvention is an ongoing challenge for the video streaming industry. However, combining advanced geo-blocking technologies with strict monitoring and robustness testing can give service providers assurance that they are doing all they can to protect against this form of infringement.<>
How can you build a more secure content distribution system?
Cartesian provides services that help content providers meet industry standards by conducting tests against 100s of end points to validate the effectiveness of geo-blocking solutions and filters. As an independent third-party, our team’s expert knowledge can help strengthen in-house testing and provide valuable insights for anti-piracy.