Coding a location based service introduced me to a lot of interesting concepts. The biggest of which was geocoding, an imprecise science of transcribing a user’s IP address into a real world location. I say imprecise because there’s really no good way of doing it and most of the geocoding and reverse-geocoding services out there rely on long lists that match an IP to its location. These lists aren’t entirely accurate so the location you get back from them is usually only good as an initial estimate and you’re better off using something like the HTML5 location framework or just simply asking the user where the hell they are in the world. Unfortunately those inaccurate lists drive a whole lot of current services, most of them with the intent of limiting said service to a certain geographical location.
I’ve written about this practice before and how it’s something of a hangover from the times of DVDs and region locking. From a technology standpoint it makes little sense to block access to certain countries (whether they block you is another matter) as all you’re doing is limiting your market. From a business and legal standpoint the waters are a little murkier as most of the geo-restricted services, the ones of note anyway, are done simply because it’s either not in their business interests to do so (although I believe that’s short sighted) or there’s a lot of legal wrangling to be done in order for it to be made available globally.
A clucky New Zealand ISP, FYX, was attempting to solve this problem of geoblocking and whilst they have withdrawn the service from the market (but are looking to bring it back) I still want to talk about their approach and why its inherently flawed.
FYX is offering what they call “Global Mode” for their Internet Services which apparently makes their users appear as if they’re not from any particular country at all. Their thinking is that once you’re a global user services that were once blocked because of your region will suddenly be available to you, undoing the damage to the free Internet that those inaccurate translations lists can cause. However the idea that no location = geoblocking services ineffective is severely flawed which would be apparent to anyone who’s even had a passing encounter with these services.
For starters most sites with geoblocking enabled do so by using a whitelist meaning that only people of specific countries will be able to access those services. For things like Hulu and netflix they are hard coded to IPs residing within the USA boundaries and anything that’s not on those lists will automatically get blocked. Of course there’s some in-browser trickery that you can do to get around this (although that’s not at the ISP layer) but the only guaranteed solution is to access them through a connection that appears to originate from an IP they trust. Simply not updating the location on those lists won’t do the trick so you’d need to do something more. It’s entirely possible that they’re doing something more fancy than this but the solution I can think of wouldn’t be very scalable, nor particularly proftiable.
It also seems that they might’ve got the attention of some rights holders groups who put pressure on their parent company to do away with the service. Legally there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the idea (apart from the fact that it probably wouldn’t work as well as advertised) but that wouldn’t stop media companies from threatening to take them to court if such a service was continued to be offered. It really shows how scared such organisations are of new technology if a small time ISP with a not-so-special service can be a big enough blip on the radar to warrant such action. I’ll be interested to see how FYX progresses with this, especially if they detail some more info on just how they go about enabling their Global Mode.
The reality of the situation is that we’re trending to a much more connected world, one where the traditional barriers to the free flow of information are no longer present. Companies that made their fortunes in the past need to adapt to the present and not attempt to litigate their way to profitability. Eventually that won’t be an option for them (think BlockBuster vs Netflix) and I really can’t wait for the day that geoblocking is just a silly memory of when companies thought that their decades old business models still worked in an ever changing world.