There was a hope that the internet would eventually help break down geographical and social barriers, and in some ways it has. However where you are and who you are still have a huge effect on what you can do or access online. Many internet entrepreneurs for example have huge difficulties running online businesses from places like Africa or India, simply because they lack access to many marketing and payment sites. Using Paypal to receive payments is much more straight forward from the US or Europe than it is in Nigeria for instance. There are a variety of reasons for these difficulties relating to unregulated financial systems and the much higher risk of fraud but it still has a huge negative impact.
There are many other restrictions online, including from the world’s most popular sites – media companies like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and the BBC all operate forms of region locking. This is the system of restricting or blocking access depending on your physical location. Mostly this is due to the rather antiquated copyright systems not really designed for the internet age – the company licenses for broadcast in North America so have to stop someone watching from anywhere else.
It’s kind of crazy and led to the mass use of proxies and VPNs to hide your location so that these blocks wouldn’t work. The idea is that I could connect through a proxy and effectively hide my IP, the web sites sees the address of the server and not your real one – so you’d connect through a US server for things like Hulu and a UK one for the BBC. This has worked for years and VPNs are now commonplace on most computers and smart devices – they are still almost impossible to detect (although proxies can be detected and are often blocked automatically).
Yet this is now changing as one of the biggest media firms Netflix has stepped up their attempts to control these connections. They seem to be under commercial pressure probably from the owners and distributors of the movies and media that they broadcast to stop people using these online IP changer programs to bypass their blocks.
This is what commonly happens now if you use a VPN to connect through to Netflix –
The web site still can’t detect the presence of the VPN but instead has figured out that it is being used because of the IP address of the connection. This is because as well as being categorized by location there are two other important labels assigned to addresses – commercial and residential. Netflix has decided that instead of trying to detect and block the VPN technology it will instead block a specific category of IP address – commercial this means that Netflix is blocking proxies and VPNs with almost 100% effectiveness.
All these commercial addresses are typically assigned to corporate networks and data centres (where the VPN servers mostly are located), so by blocking these you effectively block access to every VPN too. There is some collateral damage when people are not able to stream to their Netflix account from work but that’s likely to be negligible anyway. Now the only IP addresses that are allowed through are the residential ones which are normally assigned via your ISP.
There is of course, a logical solution -simply ensure that the VPN servers are assigned residential IP addresses instead of commercial ones. A couple of the VPN service providers have worked this out and are utilising such a solution, however expect the market to shrink as residential IP addresses are more expensive and more difficult to source. You can read more about this situation in this post which illustrates one of the residential VPN services currently available.