The Computer Corner
By Charles Miller
A practice known as geo-blocking is something that often raises ire among expatriate internet users in Mexico. The owners of web sites do have every right to restrict who may access their site. If a company creates a web site for the use of their employees then it is their right to restrict access to their employees only. Paid web sites absolutely can restrict access to their paying customers only. Web sites that are intended for the use of a domestic audience do have justification to geo-block their site to allow only viewers in certain countries access to the site.
That last sentence is the one with which so many internet users take exception, especially in Mexico. Users attempting to access video streams on certain web sites, such as bbc.com, may receive a message saying that the content is not available in your country. How does the BBC know where you live? The answer lies in your IP address, which is a unique number, generated automatically by your Internet Service Provider that reveals your physical location. The internet has to work this way otherwise no web site would ever be able to send anything to your screen.
Once a client of mine was confronted with this message while trying to access her favorite television program on the BBC web site. She rather indignantly told me “I am a British subject, and I do pay taxes and I am entitled to the services my taxes pay for!” All I could tell her was “Yeah, but your IP address tells Her Majesty you are in Mexico, and the BBC blocks anyone from accessing certain content if their IP address shows them to be outside the United Kingdom.” Right now there is just no way for the BBC to know if someone accessing its web site is a law-abiding and tax-paying subject of the UK, or a citizen of some other country.
This is most definitely a grey area. I do understand the position of the BBC being that their content is paid for by U.K. taxpayers, and at the same time I sympathize with the lady who was a British taxpayer who could not see BBC content just because she was in another country.
The same is true on the North American continent. For example, the subscription contract for Comcast cable television customers in the U.S. says they can log on to watch shows online when not at home, but then the contract goes on to say this is for domestic consumption. That means that Comcast customers may view content when they are not at home, but only as long as they stay inside the United States.
Perhaps some internet users who fail to grasp all of this might benefit from this analogy. Geo-blocking of web sites on the internet is somewhat similar to what you could experience if you carry your cell phone out of your home service area. Your cell phone only works in approved areas, and when out of your home area the billing practices might change. A phone call that was local when you and your cell phone were at home may suddenly become a very expensive long-distance call when you dial that same number from the same cell phone after you arrive in another country. Your location does matter, and your cell phone always knows where it is.
There are costs involved in owning a web site and streaming content over the internet. The owners of some web sites seek to control their budget by geo-blocking, such as the BBC seeking to provide content only to U.K. taxpayers.
Users are almost unanimous in saying geo-blocking restrictions on content streamed over the internet should be done away with. In the long run I imagine it will be someday because it is technically infeasible to enforce. Until then, anyone wanting to circumvent geo-blocking will need to resort to the use of a VPN in an effort to hide their actual location.
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.