Content Geo-Restrictions: Are they ethical and is it ethical to bypass them?

As anyone who’s ever tried to watch Netflix from two different countries knows, there are differences in what content you have access to. Sometimes, these differences can be extremely drastic, as this interactive map shows. And this is true not only for Netflix but also for Hulu, Amazon Prime, and many other video streaming services.

Of course, such a situation is absolutely annoying for subscribers of these services who get access to fewer movies and shows just because they live in a specific country. But, is this situation justified? Are people who try to circumvent it justified? Let us find out.

Why content varies by country

So what is the reason for content discrepancies in different countries?

It mostly has to do with copyrights. The thing is, people or entities who hold the rights to a specific piece of media, quite understandably, want to maximize their revenues. To achieve that end, they prefer to sell the rights to their content at a max price they can get. And Netflix or Hulu or whatever other services you might like the most isn’t always the highest bidder in every country.

Moreover, in some countries, it is deemed unprofitable to even distribute certain content. The reason for that is that people in different parts of the world have different tastes or, at least, that’s what the big shots say. Of course, it would be hard to outline a single taste for any nation but streaming services are trying their best.

For example, Star Wars is not very popular in China. Crazy, right? But it is what it is. Therefore, buying and selling rights to stream it there is not a very good decision business-wise. Which isn’t exactly comforting for those people in China who would actually love to see Star Wars.

So, as we can see, it has little to do with citizenship and such and everything to do with the actual location.

And it means that even for citizens of, let’s say, the United States who generally have the largest library of movies and shows while they stay in their home country, this library won’t be accessible as soon as they leave the American soil. If that’s not unfair, I don’t know what is.

Are geo-restrictions ethical?

But here we are getting to the main question of this problem: how ethical of content providers is it to restrict access to some of their media to people from certain regions?

As we’ve established, it is indeed very unfair. But fairness and ethics are not the same thing, no sir. So what is it, then?

One argument that can be used against regional restrictions is that it veers too close to censorship for many people’s liking. However, it is not quite valid.

Censorship, as a rule, is applied to prevent a population from accessing definite information which is usually critical of the state. It’d done to keep people in the dark about questionable things that the government commits.

But that’s not the case with a show unavailable on Netflix in one country but available in another. There’s no Big Brother involved here, just money.

Is it ethical to bypass the restrictions?

Obviously, a lot of subscribers of Netflix and other similar streaming services are not too thrilled about not having access to some movies and shows that are on the network but not available to them solely because they live in a “wrong” country. And many of them try to right that wrong and get access to those sweet, sweet shows by employing various tactics, the most widespread of which is a VPN for Netflix.

VPN, or virtual private network, technology was originally created to ensure the safety of online communication by encrypting the user’s traffic and masking their real IP address. That last thing was achieved by allocating said user another IP usually appearing to be set up in a different country than the one the customer is located in.

And as its side effect, this technology allows bypassing geographical restrictions by pretending to connect to a Netflix server from another country. Theoretically, a user browsing with a VPN should be able to see the library as if they were in that other state and, therefore, gain access to the content they couldn’t have otherwise.

Note the word “theoretically”. It is there because streaming services are well aware of this method of getting shows you aren’t supposed to get and have algorithms finding and blocking IP addresses that appear to be fake to them. Moreover, if somebody connects to a website with their real IP only to turn their VPN on and reconnect as if from half a world away in five minutes, it’s likely to trigger their account ban. It’s just too suspicious and makes the service think that the customer is either using an IP-changing tool or has shared their account with someone overseas, which is usually also prohibited.

But that’s the technical side of it. What about the moral one?

Well, it’s easy to think of bypassing geo-restrictions as of being a Robin Hood type of character, taking from the corporation and giving it to the poor… or to oneself. After all, it is only fair to have access to the same variety of movies and series as in other countries if you pay as much as the citizens of it, if not more.

On the other hand, it is a violation of copyright regulations. The sad thing about laws is that they apply to you even if you don’t agree with them.

On yet another hand, to watch some flick on the service you’ve paid to subscribe to is a victimless crime if there’s ever been one (unless the flick is just THAT bad, of course).

So, to sum it up:

It’s not really ethical to bypass content regional restrictions but, at the same time, it’s extremely unfair to have them in the first place. Exactly how morally right it is to fight injustice with injustice is up to everybody to decide for themselves.

And in the meantime, maybe, streaming services will improve their fake IP-sniffing algorithms and make this violation impossible to pull off once and for all. That would surely save us from the moral dilemma!

Or, you know, they could provide the same content to everybody around the world at the same price… but that’s probably just wishful thinking.

Read next: Is Google Maps same for every country around the world? A research says No!
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