On The Internet, Nobody Knows You're Not In The USA
Sunday, October 4, 2009; 11:25 PM
A large number of web services are geographically restricted, such as Hulu, Pandora and Spotify. The reasons are usually to do with content licensing restrictions, or because US visitors (or visitors from other advanced economies) are of a higher value from a monetization perspective. A web application can only guess at the location of a visitor based on an IP address and other information, such as browser language and regional settings.
IP addresses are mapped to countries (and in some instances, further to states and cities) using large commercial datasets such as GeoIP from Maxmind, which is a 'best guess' database based on data it has collected (how, I would rather not know). The system is accurate enough to enable services to block on a country level, but often fail at a more local level.
But the nature of the web means that geographically restricting web services is next to impossible, because those who are technically adept have known how to find and use proxy servers (both open and private) and VPN services to masquerade as being from another country.
The demand for such services has become so popular that more apps are being released that make this process almost as easy as installing any other application ¿ one-click VPN/Proxy install and then pick a country you want to be surfing from (default USA). Even better, there are now VPN solutions available for free ¿ some of which are outright free, others which are ad supported.
If you find yourself outside of the USA and wanting to watch Hulu, outside of the UK and wanting to checkout the BBC, or wanting to rig a web poll, here are some tips:
Easy to find, easy to setup. Some sites have become smart enough now to check if the IP address you are coming in from is an open proxy server and will attempt to deny it ¿ but this is most often the easiest solution. The key is to find an open proxy server that everybody else, or even worse, Eastern European crime syndicates, are also not using.
The best source if you are a blogger is to check your spam comments. Most of those IP addresses will not only be open proxy servers (you just have to work out the port ¿ or if you host your own blog, start logging the port), but will be virgin proxy servers.
Otherwise there are a ton of lists available online, often updated each minute, as well as services where you can test your proxy.
FoxyProxy is a Firefox plugin that allows you to easily switch between proxy servers (many Chinese web users are very familiar with having to juggle proxy servers and use such plugins, or browsers that have similar features built-in)
Similar to a proxy, except that a VPN is an encrypted link to a server that will route all of your network traffic (your computer, in effect, becomes part of the network).
FreeVPN ¿ thefreevpn.com ¿ A completely free VPN client and service for Windows machines. No ads, and a fast service. Not sure what the business model is, which is why I wouldn't trust it with any personal or private information and restrict it to just movie watching or poll rigging. Best free VPN service and super easy to install (see review here)
Feeedur - www.freedur.com ¿ A commercial VPN/anonymizing service that works well.
HotSpotShield ¿ hotspotshield.com ¿ Another free VPN service, but forces you to click on an ad. Working with Hulu again.
UltraVPN ¿ www.ultravpn.fr ¿ cross platform (OS X support). Both free and anonymous.
The Web Is Flat
Using a proxy or a VPN to bypass geographic restrictions or to preserve anonymity online has been known and used by more advanced users for years. More modern services and tools are making it easier for the average internet user to take advantage of the same techniques.
There are entire business models that depend on geographic targeting, so there is a constant cat-and-mouse game between providers of these services and those seeking to bypass the set restrictions. Those who are seeking to access content are winning though, and they will continue to win, as the very nature of the Internet and web make it near impossible to detect where somebody actually is if they refuse to let you know.