Putting limits on who can view online video: How it works and why it's done

Geoblocking is a technique for making sure only the people within, or sometimes outside, a specific region can view online content such as a video stream. It's the result of a clash between the global reach of the internet and the balkanized way commercial content is often licensed.

"The requested video cannot be displayed in your region."

Many online video devotees have seen this message on their screens. Some who are in the know find ways around it. For many others, irritated resignation is the only avenue available. And quite a few probably wonder why and how they are denied access to certain online content based solely on where they are.

It's called geoblocking, or sometimes geofencing, and it's a technique for making sure only the people within (or sometimes outside) a specific geographical region can view online content such as a video stream. It's the result of a clash between the global reach of the internet and the balkanized way commercial content is often licensed.

Viewers — and broadcasters — find themselves caught in the middle.

Geoblocking can be used for various purposes, not all of which involve licensed content. One common use for the technology is to avoid legal problems tied to online content or services that are legal in some jurisdictions but not in others, notes Michael Geist, Canada research chair of internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa.

A primary example is online gambling. Cyber-casino operators can stay out of legal trouble by denying access to users in jurisdictions where it's illegal.

When would-be viewers are denied access to mainstream audio or video content such as TV shows being streamed online, legal issues are usually involved too. But in this case the issues surround the way rights to such content are sold.

For instance, the CBC bought from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) the rights to broadcast the 2008 Summer Olympics on television, along with digital rights to stream video of the events online. But those rights applied only to Canada. The IOC sold similar rights to NBC in the U.S.

"We as the Canadian rights holder are privy to certain digital rights," explains Bob Kerr, director of business development at CBC, "but we have to make sure we don't leak into the States."

How it works

To plug those types of leaks, the CBC and other online broadcasters employ software that can determine a website visitor's location by looking at his or her computer's Internet Protocol (IP) address. This is a numeric code assigned to every computer connected to the internet, whether it's an individual user's laptop or a large corporation's web server.

Depending on the type of internet access you have, that number may change every time you connect to the net (a "dynamic" IP address) or remain the same for as long as you stay with your internet service provider (a "static" address).

Either way, your IP address by itself can't identify you personally or give your exact location to an outsider on the internet. Think of the IP address as a sort of telephone number for your computer, except that there's no public phone book — your internet service provider is the only one with a list identifying who's paying for the IP connection running through its system.

But just as a telephone number has an area code, an IP address roughly indicates the location of the computer to which it is assigned. IP addresses are given to internet service providers in blocks, so the first digits of the address identify the provider and thus the country of origin.

Dodging the block

There are ways around geoblocking by disguising your computer's IP address.

One of the most common ways is to use a service that relays your internet connection through a server in another country — most often the U.S. — so that you appear to be in that country. Content providers haven't found a way to prevent this, and so far are simply tolerating it.

There is also no way at present to apply geoblocking to mobile phones that can display video, Kerr notes.

"So far, rights holders have been willing to overlook that, knowing that there's no technological solution," he says.

As video on phones gains popularity, though, look for the industry to seek ways of applying geoblocking to mobile networks.

How it's used

International sports events, the rights to which are usually controlled by governing bodies such as the IOC or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), are where geoblocking most often comes into play, Kerr says. But it can also occur when television networks sell international rights to their entertainment programming, or when independent production companies sell rights market by market.

If a U.S. broadcaster sells a Canadian network a series that is also available on the U.S. network's website, for example, the U.S. company may prevent Canadians from watching its streaming video to avoid infringing the rights it has sold to the Canadian network.

This may happen even if the Canadian network didn't actually buy online rights to the show, notes Alan Sawyer, principal consultant at Two Solitudes Consulting, a Toronto-based new media consultancy.

That's because the foreign network that sold the Canadian broadcast rights doesn't want to annoy its customer by having an international online video stream draw potential viewers away from the Canadian television broadcast — which could affect the program's Canadian television ratings and hence the advertising revenue it generates.

Changing (distribution) channels

Broadcast rights are still more valuable than the "new media" rights that allow for online distribution, Sawyer says. And, since broadcasters make money through advertising, there is little benefit to them in streaming their programs outside their home countries to viewers who probably won't buy from their advertisers.

'Those who are doing it for business reasons may find their business models evolve over time.'—Michael Geist, University of Ottawa

This may change as the market for online content evolves, though.

As more people watch video online, Sawyer suggests, demand for advertising around that content will grow, and broadcasters will become keener to capitalize on new media rights to their programming. So they will either sell more online rights to local companies, or possibly make the content available more widely themselves.

Geist says there will always be some geoblocking, particularly for things like online gambling, where laws vary between countries. He adds, however: "Those who are doing it for business reasons may find their business models evolve over time."

For broadcasters able to serve only one country, he points out, selling off foreign rights to successful programs used to be the only way to earn money from that content in other countries. On the internet, however, a single content provider can reach a worldwide audience. Geist thinks some broadcasters, especially big U.S. networks, may find that model makes more sense than selling local rights.

Sawyer is skeptical. He argues content providers can make more money on a popular program by selling rights piecemeal to many local broadcasters than by streaming it worldwide.

Either way, geoblocking is one of the primary technologies that broadcasters will continue to use when they want to maintain some control over who has access to their online content.