One of the only ways to protect your right to privacy and information online is to use a VPN. Some websites infringe on those rights by blocking VPNs, but they do it for a good reason.
The big names that are notorious for blacklisting VPNs are Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and the BBC. It’s hard to figure out exactly how many websites block VPN access, but the number could be in the thousands. Most of these sites aren’t actively at war with VPNs, but they manage to blacklist a lot of VPN IP addresses over time passively.
Remind Me, What’s a VPN?
Before going into this, you’ll want to know what IP addresses are and how VPNs work. We’ll keep this brief. When you connect to the internet through a router, you’re given an IP address. This address, essentially, identifies your computer or router so that websites know where you’re connecting from and can send traffic back to you. The IP address that you’re assigned at home is different from the IP address that you’re assigned at a coffee shop.
When you use a VPN (virtual private network), you’re effectively tunneling all of your online activity through a remote server. Your service provider can’t see what you’re doing online, because the traffic is encrypted and funneled through a remote server. Websites can’t see your actual IP address; they can only see the IP address of the server that’s masking your activity. So if your VPN funnels your activity through a server that’s in a different state or country, websites think that you’re connecting from said state or country.
Blocking VPNs Is Easy
It’s common for websites to locate and track users based on their IP addresses. IP tracking is an easy way to increase account security, build targeted advertisements, and show users different content depending on the country in which they live. This practice of IP tracking is one of the main reasons why people use VPN services, but it’s also the reason why blocking VPN access to a website is so easy.
A VPN service owns a limited number of IP addresses. And since most VPN servers use IPv4 (an outdated IP address protocol), it’s difficult to generate unique IP addresses, and a pool of subscribers are often sharing the same IP addresses for months or years at a time. Websites that want to blacklist VPNs simply need to use services like ipinfo to block IP addresses that have been used by multiple different users.
There are two other ways that websites can blacklist VPNs, but these methods aren’t as common as IP blocking. One method, called port blocking, requires websites to figure out the exit ports that VPNs are using for all of their IP addresses. Port blocking is easy and effective because most VPNs use the 1194 OpenVPN port. Another method, called deep-packet inspection, checks users’ metadata for cryptography signatures. These signatures are like the fingerprints of VPN services, and hiding them is difficult.
Contracts Force Streaming Sites To Ban VPNs
Again, the most notorious VPN blacklisters are Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and the BBC. All of these websites stream media, and they all blacklist VPNs to honor regional contracts with licensing companies.
When streaming services want to add a TV show or a movie to their library, they have to sign a contract with the licensing company that owns said programming. The world of streaming services is incredibly competitive right now, and licensing companies can make hundreds of millions of dollars by handing popular shows to the highest bidder.
But the licensing contracts that streaming services sign are usually regional, not global. That’s why Netflix and Hulu offer different programming to different counties. Streaming services sign regional contracts because the popularity (and therefore, the value) of shows and movies differs by regions. It’s safe to assume that culturally-specific programming, like Korean dramas, are worth more in some regions than they are in others. Therefore, Netflix doesn’t have to pay much to secure an American license for a Korean drama, because K-dramas aren’t very profitable outside of Korea.
But if Koreans start using VPN services to watch their favorite shows on American Netflix, then the value of Korean programming will fall significantly. Licensing companies won’t be able to convince Korean streaming services that these shows are worth million-dollar contracts because American Netflix is already getting all of the Korean traffic for these shows at a much lower price.
Licensing companies and TV networks don’t want the value of their shows to decrease, for obvious reasons. So they build clauses into their contracts that force streaming services to secure content by region. Streaming services have no choice but to blacklist VPNs. Admittedly, we don’t have access to any of these legal agreements. But if they look anything like the contracts that Apple signs, then licensing companies are allowed to pull programming at a moment’s notice if streaming services can’t protect the value of said programming. Oh, and they could sue.
Websites Want To Minimize Spam And Fraud
The most legitimate reason why a website would block VPN access is to mitigate unlawful or annoying behavior. The problem with this technique is that it punishes more innocent people than it does criminals.
Paypal has received a lot of flack for blacklisting VPNs, but to be fair, they do it for a good reason. IP addresses are a form of identity, and criminals that use a VPN to mask their IP address tend to be difficult to track down. Not to mention, Paypal is a bank, and the company has to respect regional tax codes and money laws.
Some websites, like IRS.gov or Craigslist, don’t always work when you’re using a VPN service. These websites aren’t running blacklists that specifically target VPN IP addresses, though; they’re usually running and contributing to public blacklists that flag IP addresses associated with spam and suspicious activity.
But how do these IP addresses end up on these public blacklists? Well, let’s pretend that you’re doing account security work at IRS.gov, and you notice something strange. A hundred different people have logged in from the same IP address. While this could be a sign that people are using a VPN service at tax time, it could also be a sign that some wild hacker has managed to compromise a hundred different accounts. Blacklisting that IP address is probably a good idea, even if it may infringe on peoples’ right to privacy.
Public Wi-Fi Networks Block VPNs
You should always use a VPN while connected to a public network. Obviously, McDonald’s doesn’t need to know what you’re doing on the internet, but their prying eyes aren’t the main issue. Public networks aren’t secure (yet). They’re easy to hack, and someone that hacks a public network can collect a ridiculous amount of sensitive information in a short period.
That’s why the blacklisting of VPNs by public Wi-Fi networks is so frustrating. People have complained that a lot of public Wi-Fi networks, particularly those that are provided by Comcast and AT&T, block VPN access entirely. They probably do this to keep you from pirating files or watching porn on their network, but they might be doing this to ensure that they can collect and sell your web traffic.
How To Get Around Blacklists
The majority of VPN users aren’t fraudsters or pirates. They’re average people that are concerned about privacy, or people that feel the need to skirt around geo-locked content and government censorship. When businesses choose to blacklist VPN services, it isn’t just a minor annoyance; it’s also a denial of your right to privacy and information.
There are some ways to get around these blacklists, but things change every day, so be prepared to look for new solutions as old methods become unreliable.
Here are some ways to get around blacklists:
- Only use premium VPN services, and avoid anything that’s too good to be true.
- Opt for a slower, more secure VPN protocol.
- Get a private VPN IP address.
- Most VPNs use the 1194 port, which is easy to detect. Try switching your VPN port to 2018, 41185, 433, or 80.
- If your VPN service offers obfuscated servers, use them.
- If your VPN service offers SSH, SSL, or TLS tunnels, then try them out. They’re slow, yet secure.
- Try using the Tor browser.
Of course, the best way to ensure that these blacklists are unsuccessful is to continue fighting against them. Make it clear to businesses that your rights are worth something, and don’t be afraid to let your money do the talking.