Website geoblocking is not that widespread, study finds

Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Cuba are the most geoblocked countries.

Geoblocking, the practice of websites blocking users from certain countries from accessing their content, is not as widespread as most people believe, a recently published study has revealed.

Scans of the Alexa Top 10,000 and Top 1 Million sites have unveiled low percentages of websites engaging in geoblocking.

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More precisely, researchers found that only 596 websites from the Alexa Top 10,000 list of sites engaged in geoblocking (also known as geofencing), and only 1,595 sites did so from the Alexa Top 1 Million.

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Image: McDonald et al.

The study was carried out by a team of academics from the University of Michigan and verified against additional data provided by Cloudflare, one of the content delivery networks (CDNs) that provides geoblocking services to its customers.

Researchers said they used vantage points in 177 countries to test if they could access popular websites on the Alexa lists. The vantage points were provided by Luminati, a commercial platform that sells access to proxy servers operated by users of the Hola VPN service.

According to the research team, the most blocked countries were Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Cuba, who stood in a category of their own, with geoblocking numbers far bigger than countries ranked from the fifth position down, such as China, Russia, Ukraine, and Nigeria.

All four are countries on which the US has imposed export sanctions, and which most online websites and even CDNs won't provide services, hence the higher detection numbers.

Lacking from the list is North Korea, but this wasn't because websites didn't block users from the hermit kingdom, but because the Luminati service, as well as many other proxy and VPN services, aren't able to provide a server located within North Korea's borders, for testing.

In both results sets, the Alexa Top 10,000 and Top 1 Million, researchers said that shopping websites were the ones that usually enforced the most geoblocks, followed by business domains, and IT-related sites.

But while the overall geoblocking numbers are low, researchers also suspect that some sites don't engage into a generic geoblock that can be detected using automated scripts, like the ones they created and used. For example, some online stores may allow users to navigate their sites, but not ship to certain countries, which is also the equivalent of a geoblock, at the service level.

Researchers also believe that geoblocking numbers might have also gone down in recent year after the European Parliament passed down regulation in 2017 forcing EU states to remove geoblocking limitations within the EU's internal market.

More details about this research are available in an academic paper entitled "403 Forbidden: A Global View of Geoblocking" [1, 2], presented last month at the 18th ACM Internet Measurement Conference (IMC '18), held in Boston, USA.

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