How do geo-locked websites track where you’re from?

The internet is an amazing global tool that has made our world more interconnected than ever before. We can communicate instantly with people anywhere, watch media, consume independent content from any country and even work remotely. The internet has given us a huge amount of freedom to explore our world without leaving our homes. 

However, this freedom also gives us the illusion that we can see anything and everything online and that everyone else has the same access that we do. In reality, what we see online is tightly controlled by our governments and by the companies that own the websites that we visit. 

Geo-locking, also known as geoblocking, is the process websites use to detect where a visitor is from and block that user if they’re in a certain region or country. This can be done for a variety of reasons. Not all geo-locking is problematic, sometimes it’s simply done for legal reasons or an assumed lack of interest.

In this article, we’ll look at how geo-locked websites track where you’re from. Then, we’ll review some of the most common types of websites that are geo-locked.

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How geo-locking works

Geo-locking works using your IP address. An IP address is essentially how a computer connected to the internet is able to interact with sites and other devices. It is created by the router that the device is using to connect to the internet. That router’s physical location is incorporated into the IP address. IP addresses don’t give an exact address, but they have a very small geographic area that they cover. 

Websites that are geo-locked scan through the IP addresses of every device attempting to connect to them. If an IP address matches an accepted location, the device is allowed to access the site. If the IP address is tied to a location that the owners of the website don’t allow access from, the device is blocked.

Other tools that geo-locked sites use are Domain Name System (DNS) checkers, WebRTC which stores information about your device and its location and Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which is only used in highly sensitive cases as it is very resource intensive.

Types of geo-locked website

The geo-locked websites that most people are probably familiar with are streaming sites, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+. While these sites may be available in various regions, the content that each country has access to varies. This depends on a range of factors. The two most important factors are licensing and market demand.

Online casinos are some of the most frequently geo-locked websites. Online gambling laws can vary dramatically between countries and are often very strict. This gives online casinos a strong incentive to geo-lock their sites. Different countries also have different licensing regulations, which online casinos must abide by.

On the positive side, this allows sites to offer games and promotions that are tailored to their local audiences. These casino sites for UK players, for example, accept deposits in British pounds, generally have customer service available during GMT hours, if not 24/7, and have special offers that reflect British promotion preferences. 

Social media sites are also frequently geo-locked. Some sites are banned entirely in certain countries, while others have limited features and accessibility depending on the region that they’re operating in. This is one of the more concerning forms of geo-locking because it is often done to limit people’s ability to communicate. Social media was used effectively to expose the realities of what was happening during the Arab Spring. Since then, governments have been quicker to block access to social media during periods of conflict.

Can you override geo-locking?

It can be very annoying to want to access content only to have a “blocked in your region” alert pop up when you try to visit a site. Knowing that there are shows and movies that you want to watch that are available on Netflix or other streaming services in other countries but not in yours also feels unfair. This is where VPNs can be useful.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN works by bouncing the signal from your device through multiple routers before it arrives at the site you’re trying to reach. This lets you protect your personal information and, in the case of geo-locking, hide where your device is actually located. 

With most VPNs, you have the option to specify where you would like it to appear that your device is located. For example, if you can watch American Netflix from anywhere in the world, you can use your VPN to bounce your device’s signal through a router in the USA.

VPNs aren’t foolproof, and sometimes the routers that they use are overwhelmed by traffic or shut down. For the most part, however, they provide a simple way around most geo-locking efforts. Since they also provide extra security while you’re browsing online, they are a smart addition to your device protection efforts.