How do I know if I've been geo-blocked?
If you try to buy something by adding to your cart on a site like Amazon, for example, but can’t complete the checkout and order, then it's likely you've hit a geo-block. If you can’t watch a show on the BBC's iPlayer service or can’t log in to a US Netflix platform, then you've probably been geo-blocked. If you try to book tickets to sporting events, festivals or theme parks online but you're prevented, then, you guessed it, geo-blocked.
Geo-blocking is, in a technical sense, a way that service providers, businesses and digital platforms restrict access to their services or products to users within a country or certain geographical area.
How do sites know I'm out of the country?
Websites use specialised technology called 'geolocation software' that finds the location of web users by identifying their computer's IP address, which contains:
- a number assigned to the computer
- usually the user's internet service provider (ISP)
- the country they reside in.
Some sites may also restrict overseas credit cards, overseas bank accounts and international payments, and not provide PayPal, which can be used across the web.
Why is geo-blocking used?
Restricting access to content based on where you are in the world is a popular strategy used far too often by multinational tech giants. Using copyright and licensing restrictions, they can set varying prices for their products in different places around the globe. The frustrating reality of geo-blocking is common for Australian consumers, and we're often charged hefty mark-ups on products from companies like Apple, Microsoft and Amazon based on our IP address. Online media streaming services like Netflix and Hulu also divide the globe into segments, only granting access to those with a certain IP address.
Is bypassing geo-blocking legal?
The legality of getting around geo-blocking is a bit of a grey area. Some copyright experts claim that anyone who promotes devices or programs that encourage people to infringe copyright are breaking the law. However, CHOICE believes consumers who bypass measures employed to geographically restrict copyrighted content should be exempt. Why? Because they're only accessing products and services that are being provided knowingly and willingly by the copyright holder.
It's legal to use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect your online transactions from hackers. In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull stated that it’s not illegal to use a VPN to access geo-blocked content on overseas sites, despite content deals between studios and streaming platforms that restrict access through geographic locations.
However, it's also important to note that circumventing geo-blocks may breach the terms and conditions of the company you're buying from – and if you're found out, your account could be cancelled, losing you credit and access to your downloads.
According to the ACCC, your rights when using overseas-based companies to buy products may not be protected by Australian Consumer Law. While some companies like Apple have international warranties, others like Canon and Nintendo refuse to recognise products bought internationally under domestic consumer law.
How would a VPN help?
You can use a VPN to access TV, movies and media not normally available in Australia, as well as shop on some overseas sites. A VPN (virtual private network) gives your devices a private, secure internet connection so others can't see your information or location, which can allow you to get around blocked overseas websites. Using a VPN server that's in the same country as the website you're attempting to access should give you access to media and services usually not available to Australian residents. See our VPN service reviews to see which ones we rate, and take a look at our helpful guide to choosing a VPN that can get you around location-based artificial price inflation when shopping overseas online.
A word of caution before signing up for a VPN – don't assume it'll guarantee you unfettered access to sites and service across the web. Some platforms, such as Netflix, are trying to block people using VPNs to access their services from another country. It's a bit like a game of cat and mouse: whenever a technical restriction is imposed, there are the workarounds that suddenly appear as a response.
An alternative to using a VPN is to adopt a US-based Domain Name System (DNS) server, like unblock-us.com, for about $5 per month. Rerouting your internet connection through a DNS server – easier to do than it sounds – can also trick a website into believing you're in another country.
If documentaries or international news are more your thing, you may be able to access BBC iPlayer and international news networks, usually blocked here in Australia, in a similar way.
How do I get stuff shipped to Australia?
The price is often right with online retailers – until you reach the checkout and are told that shipping to Australia isn't possible. Third-party delivery services, like MyUS.com and Australian-based company Price USA remove physical shipping barriers, opening up new shopping opportunities for Australian consumers. From computers to clothing, the basic principle is the same: you buy the product, enter the warehouse address of the parcel-forwarding service you choose, and wait until they redirect the mail to your Australian address. Some companies, like Price USA, actually buy the product on your behalf.
How do I pay less to play online games?
It's no surprise that Aussie online gamers are keen to find their way around geo-blocks, with the average cost of a game being up to 50% higher here. Access to the lower prices offered on the US version of online gaming service Steam is a difficult one to get around without a US credit card. However, the cheaper US prices for PlayStation Network (PSN) and Xbox Live can be accessed by buying prepaid vouchers, which can then be used to add credit to an account set up through a VPN, provided you also use a legitimate US address.
How do I set up a US iTunes account?
In the local iTunes store, Australians can expect to be charged more than in the US store for the same content. To get around this, you can set up a US iTunes account by altering the country setting automatically detected when you open the iTunes store, and entering a legitimate US address instead. To get around the US credit card requirement, it's possible to make your first buy a free app, and later top up your account with prepaid US iTunes store gift cards bought from eBay.
Where to from here?
In 2016, the Productivity Commission recommended that Australians be allowed to get around geo-blocking by using services such as VPNs because Australian consumers pay higher prices for games, software, music, eBooks and so on. New rules for the EU that come into effect in 2018 will allow consumers there to access content on sites such as Netflix, Spotify, iTunes, eBay and Amazon wherever they are in the EU; although this doesn't necessarily mean the same content will be available to every country in the EU.