The web really isn't worldwide: Every country has different access

December 6, 2018 by Allison Mcdonald, The Conversation
When a website blocks access, it sometimes delivers a notice saying so. Credit: Screenshot from, CC BY-ND

What the internet looks like to users in the U.S. can be quite different from the online experience of people in other countries. Some of those variations are due to government censorship of online services, which is a significant threat to internet freedom worldwide. But private companies – many based in the U.S. – are also building obstacles to users from around the world who want to freely explore the internet.

Website operators and traffic managers often choose to deny access to users based on their location. Users from certain countries can't visit certain websites – not because their governments say so, or because their employers want them to focus on work, but because a corporation halfway around the world has made a decision to deny them access.

This geoblocking, as it's called, is not always nefarious. U.S. companies may block traffic from certain countries to comply with federal economic sanctions. Shopping websites might choose not to have visitors from countries they don't ship goods to. Media sites might not be able to comply with other nations' privacy laws. But other times it's out of convenience, or laziness: It may be easier to stop hacking attempts from a country by blocking every user from that country, rather than increasing security of vulnerable systems.

Whatever its justifications, this blocking is increasing on all kinds of websites and is affecting users from almost every country in the world. Geoblocking cuts people off from global markets and international communications just as effectively as government censorship. And it creates a more splintered internet, where each country has its own bubble of content and services, rather than sharing a global commons of information and interconnection.

Measuring geoblocking globally

As a team of internet freedom researchers, my colleagues and I investigated the mechanics of geoblocking, including where geoblocking is happening, what content was being blocked and how websites were practicing geoblocking.

We used a service called Luminati, which provides researchers remote, automated access to residential internet connections around the world. Our automated system used those connections to see what more than 14,000 sites look like from 177 countries, and compared the results in each country.

Websites that didn't block traffic typically served us a large file providing rich internet content, including text, images and video. Websites that were blocked usually delivered just a short notice saying that access was denied because of the visitor's location. When the same delivered a large file to an address in one country and a very short one to another, we knew we had a good chance of finding that the site was conducted geoblocking.

We found that the internet does indeed look very different depending on where you're connecting from. Users in countries under U.S. sanctions – Iran, Syria, Sudan and Cuba – had access to significantly fewer websites than in other countries. People in China and Russia faced similar restrictions, though not as many. Some countries are less affected, but of the 177 countries we studied, every one – except the Seychelles – was subjected to at least some geoblocking, including the U.S.

Shopping websites were the most likely to geoblock, perhaps because of economic sanctions or more straightforward business reasons. But some websites hosting news and educational resources chose to block users from specific countries, limiting those people's access to outside information and perspectives.

The role of internet middlemen

We also found that many websites are taking advantage of geoblocking services provided by their hosting companies and online middleman firms called content delivery networks. These companies operate systems that preload web content at key locations around the world to speed service to nearby internet users, so an Australian looking for an article in the Washington Post doesn't have to wait for the request to travel halfway around the world and back. With a content delivery network, there's already an up-to-date electronic copy of the Washington Post stored in, say, Sydney.

Many content delivery network services include a dashboard where a site administrator can easily select which countries to deliver the website's information to – and which ones to block. Content delivery networks in general are a lot cheaper than they used to be, which means more and more are getting their hands on simple geoblocking tools.

In fact, based on data that were provided to us by Cloudflare, one of the world's largest content delivery networks, this trend is only increasing. As of August 2018, more than 37 percent of Cloudflare's large-business customers block their website in at least one country.

Sometimes an unavailable website is merely an inconvenience – I can't order my Irish friends a pizza from the U.S., for example. Other times geoblocking can really cause problems. We encountered an Iranian student who couldn't apply to graduate school abroad because the admissions website wouldn't accept payment of the application fee from Iran. Another person may be unable to read the news from a major international city, or plan a trip abroad because travel websites are all unavailable from their home.

Geoblocking is ineffective

Restricting access based on geography is unlikely to affect all internet users equally. As when evading censorship, getting around a geoblock isn't necessarily difficult. But it might be expensive, expose users to additional tracking of their online activity, or require a level of technical literacy that not everyone has. Even if a user can ultimately access the they were originally denied, they may bear a significant burden to gain access to the wider internet.

It's also not easy – or necessarily accurate – to identify an internet user's physical location. Using a computer's numeric IP address to estimate where in the world it's being used is notoriously unreliable. At least some users are likely being unfairly denied access to online services because their network address is determined to be somewhere they are not. However, rather than expanding the accessibility and accuracy of geoblocking, our group is encouraging researchers to address the needs of websites while maintaining as open an policy as possible.

The internet has indelibly changed the world and the way people connect and do business. Researchers are working hard to keep this valuable resource available to everyone. Companies shouldn't thwart those efforts by discriminating against users only because of where they are when they connect.

Explore further: EU frees up cross-border online shopping

Related Stories

EU frees up cross-border online shopping

November 21, 2017

The European Union have agreed to lift barriers to consumers shopping online for cheaper goods and services in other EU countries, with the rules to take effect late next year.

Explainer: What is geoblocking?

April 19, 2013

So you sit down in front of your computer to catch the latest episode of Doctor Who directly from BBC's iPlayer, and you are greeted by an error message informing you that the program will play only in the UK. So why are ...

Why you should care about China's VPN crackdown

August 23, 2017

Internet censors have a new target. The Chinese and Russian governments recently announced plans to block the use of "virtual private networks" (VPNs), which are a key tool for people trying to avoid internet restrictions ...

China directs users to approved VPNs as firewall tightens

January 30, 2018

China vowed Tuesday to force both local and foreign companies and individuals to use only government-approved software to access the global internet, as overseas firms fear losing unrestricted online services under an impending ...

Recommended for you

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

February 20, 2019

Why do zebras have stripes? A study published in PLOS ONE today takes us another step closer to answering this puzzling question and to understanding how stripes actually work.

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...

Correlated nucleons may solve 35-year-old mystery

February 20, 2019

A careful re-analysis of data taken at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has revealed a possible link between correlated protons and neutrons in the nucleus and a 35-year-old mystery. ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.