Web Operator’s Idiosyncraticism Hinders Internet’s Freedom

Website operators and internet 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. US 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.

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 website 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 US 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 US.

Countries in gray were not examined in the geoblocking study. Source: Allison McDonald, University of Michigan

Countries in gray were not examined in the geoblocking study. Source: Allison McDonald, University of Michigan

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.