It’s happened to everyone. You’re about to watch a video, but you see the sentence, “The content is not available in your location.” Here’s why it happens.
Geo-blocking, also called geo-filtering or region-locking, is when a company restricts the locations where a user can view a piece of content. All types of content can be geo-blocked, including articles, websites, and services, but it’s most prominent for videos. Virtually every streaming website and video sharing service, from Youtube to Hulu, has some form of geo-blocking enabled. Even if you’ve never had content explicitly blocked from your view, you’ve likely still experienced some form of geo-blocking.
Companies can apply geographical filters to countries, states, cities, and even smaller locations like buildings and offices. The implementation varies from service to service. Some will allow you to browse the content but restrict you from continuing to view it. Other websites will hide the restricted content entirely, so you won’t know what is available outside your region. Netflix is a prominent example of this.
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The most common reason for geo-blocking is licensing or copyright. To legally distribute a particular piece of content in your region, a service needs to own the distribution rights to that specific market. For many shows, it’s common for a streaming service to hold the distribution rights to some markets but not others.
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For example, some popular franchises such as Friends and Harry Potter are available in Netflix Canada and Netflix UK, but not in Netflix US. Many of these shows are exclusively distributed in the US by other streaming services, such as Hulu or HBO Max. This is the same case with Youtube videos. For example, you might run into a clip of a movie that is geo-blocked in your country. It’s likely because the content uploader, usually a film distribution company, does not have the right to distribute the movie or its clips in your region.
Another reason why geo-blocking happens is to segment different markets. Some markets may have different pricing, languages, and preferred content, so a streaming service will tailor an experience to a particular area. It’s also why some services are unavailable in certain countries altogether. For example, many countries in Asia have local streaming services that are not available in the US.
An odd example of this practice takes place in sports streaming. Many sports streaming services, like the NBA League Pass, prevent viewers from streaming home games being televised in their state or city. This is done because traditional media outlets like local sports channels often pay broadcasting rights to exclusively show the match in their local area. It leads to an odd situation where the only people who can’t watch a live Utah Jazz game on League Pass live in Utah.
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Companies can pull from a variety of sources to determine your location. Apps will use your IP address, GPS location, or your customized location settings to determine where you are. If Netflix has access to your location information, it will pinpoint where you are whenever you open the app. When you fly to a different country, you will notice that the movies and shows you can access on Netflix will change.
Aside from restricting movies, geo-locating does have some interesting uses. For example, Snapchat implemented a feature several years ago called “geofilters.” These were custom Snapchat filters that users could only activate in a particular area. Geofilters often appeared in special events like concerts, sports games, weddings, or in small communities like college campuses. Marketers also use geo-filtering to create “hyperlocalized” ads for people in a small geographic location.
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We know it’s frustrating to have so much content restricted to you, especially if you’ve run out of things to watch. Fortunately, there are some ways you can get around geo-blocking on streaming services.
The most common solution is to run a VPN or “virtual private network.” It’s a service that reroutes your internet traffic through a different, 3rd party IP address located in a different country. For example, if you connect to a server in Japan, you will suddenly get access to Netflix Japan. This method doesn’t work for every device or streaming service (some will try to block your VPN), but it’s a great way to expand your streaming library.
If you want to learn more about using a VPN, you can read our basic introduction to VPNs. when you’re ready to try one, consider our recommendations for the best VPN services out there.