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Commentary: Geoblocking, You, and How It Affects the People Who Create the Content We Love13 min read

26 February 2021 9 min read


Commentary: Geoblocking, You, and How It Affects the People Who Create the Content We Love13 min read

Reading Time: 9 minutes

It’s no secret that Netflix Singapore’s catalogue is limited in comparison to international libraries. Until recently, virtual private networks (VPNs) have also been the only way to access exclusive content on international streaming platforms such as Disney+. 

With the world kept indoors for more than a year, the global pandemic has further solidified the internet as the prime platform for entertainment. For consumers, geoblocking seems counterintuitive, where certain content or websites are unavailable on the supposedly free web even if they are willing to pay for access. Yet, in the eyes of distributors, geoblocking is all but necessary to defend copyright laws and distribution rights. 

Launched on 23 February, Disney+ is the newest challenger for Singaporean eyeballs in the streaming world / Image credit: Disney

It’s a landscape that places filmmakers between a rock and a hard place (not that they ever had an easy time). On one hand, the prospect of having their works shown to the largest audience possible must be fulfilling as storytellers. On the other, they might have to bow to exclusive distribution and premiere rights which usually come as part of deals to finance films. These problems are nothing new, but the streaming age has also subjected them to brand new issues that are near impossible to navigate on their own.

Geoblocking is a thorny issue that affects just about everyone on the internet. In this article, we give a quick overview of why there are these digital barriers and why VPNs are legal to use. Beyond consumers, we also discuss how geoblocking and streaming services affect the people who create the films and series we love, and how important it is for film and television industries to support these filmmakers.

Why is there geoblocking?

Geoblocking are digital barriers to obstruct online content based on the user’s location, typically identified through their IP address. VPNs circumnavigate this by directing users to foreign IP addresses. More so than preventing access to international streaming libraries, geoblocking is also used to direct customers to tailored localised pages on shopping sites to facilitate targeted content and appropriate taxation. It’s not a new phenomenon either, with region locking on DVDs, software and hardware in place for similar purposes.

Key reasons for geoblocking include the protection of copyright laws and distribution rights, and to meet licensing terms. Since multinational corporations (MNCs) are usually the holders of these, they are the main proponents of geoblocking. It ensures their ability to individually negotiate rights while facilitating targeted marketing materials. 

Netflix remains the world’s largest subscription streaming service / Photo credit: Thibault Penin via Unsplash

While original content produced by over-the-top (OTT) media services, such as by Netflix and Amazon Prime, are usually more broadly available, there are more complications when it comes to legacy content such as older films and television series. This is mainly due to existing licensing arrangements by their distributors, which OTT platforms buy the licenses from. Newer arrangements could be seen as too much of a hassle or simply not cost-effective enough to renegotiate.

The global pandemic has brought film festivals to digital spaces. Film festival exclusivity and premieres remain a cornerstone for the industry. In turn, established film festivals become prime networking spots for filmmakers to showcase their work, to connect with film buyers, and potentially gain screening revenues. The financing of films also tends to include clauses to ensure such exclusivities. This is why most online festivals have adopted geoblocking and limited virtual audiences to online screenings. 

Last year, a group of 18 film festivals started a campaign to persuade all others running online editions to keep the technology in place. In their words, it is to “protect the ecosystem of the audiovisual industry by guaranteeing a healthy circulation and diversity of audiovisual programs and films, a fair remuneration of rights holders as well as a committed dialogue with the audience”. 

Who benefits from geoblocking?

The clear beneficiaries of geoblocking are media behemoths and established industry players. Owning exclusive rights means that they are able to negotiate for licencing fees on a country or territorial basis, which in turn leads to leverage and opportunities for profitability. In the film festival circuit, geoblocking protects festival prestige as well as to allay filmmakers’ concern of premiere rights.

Whether it benefits anyone else in the business world is up for debate. A key case study on the topic is the ongoing legal battles in the European Union (EU). Since 2015, the EU has prohibited “unjustified” geoblocking within its member countries. As an extension to the EU’s Single Market, the prohibition is intended to increase competition and celebrate its diversity in media. 

A prompt from Netflix that might occur when a VPN is used 

Curious enough, however, the prohibitions do not extend to streaming audio-visual content such as Netflix. This means that the streaming content available for Europeans are limited by their place of residence. A report by the European Commission notes that on average a European consumer only has access to 14% of the films available online in all the Member States as a whole.

The support for geoblocking remains strong, especially where the prohibition extends to movie and television licencing. Supporters — consisting of independent producers and not just of MNCs — believe that prohibiting geoblocking will upset current models where independent producers could sell and negotiate licensing rights on a country to country basis within the EU. Things only get complicated from there, especially when law rulings are brought to the fold.

Nevertheless, the case study in the EU highlights how the goals of distributors and producers are often at odds with consumers and filmmakers. Those that have benefitted under traditional models — which are now brought online — are largely unwilling to give in to protect their interests. All the benefits of the old are reaped, with the weaknesses of the new left for filmmakers to navigate.

Why are we able to use VPNs?

Beyond original productions, the main bread and butter content of any streaming service is licensed from larger distributions studios. As streaming services are a relatively new phenomenon, distribution on these platforms either follow previously held territorial agreements or are renegotiated — studios rarely engage in the latter. 

A by-product of laws throughout the world still catching up is with the grey legality of VPNs. For example in Singapore, using VPNs are completely legal (unless for nefarious purposes) because there are no laws that prohibit them. However, using a VPN to access another country’s Netflix library will breach their terms of use.

VPNs seem like the consumer’s silver bullet against media conglomerates’ efforts to enforce geoblocking. However, could there be a third party that loses out in this crossfire?

Do film and television industries benefit from geoblocking? 

It seems like an odd question to ask. Being storytellers, most filmmakers would want their works to be experienced by the largest crowd possible and reap the monetary benefits to finance their next films. The promise of the Internet allows for the former but not necessarily the latter. 

There are plenty of arguments on why geoblocking is detrimental to filmmakers. Perhaps one of the clearest is internet piracy, which remains a huge concern and issue. A lack of accessibility has often been cited as a key driving force behind the crime. Streaming platforms have filled this gap — but that was before stricter geoblocking measures and the galaxy of OTT services that have popped up to fragment the market, each with its own subscriptions to fork out for. Worse still is when the option to stream specific films or television completely disappear. 

While initially available on Netflix in Singapore, there are currently no legal ways to stream sitcom ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ / Image credit: FX

Using VPNs to access unavailable subscription-based content could help filmmakers. But that is if consumers are willing to fork out both the subscriptions to VPNs and to the streaming services. Furthermore, VPNs are not directing their profits towards filmmakers either. 

Geoblocking is not necessarily always the fault of streaming services. Rather, it’s more of a way to protect the rights of studios and distributors. Netflix original series, for example, are mostly available to all users. One exception is House of Cards, which wasn’t available in India until its last season due to licensing agreements made before the service was launched in the country.

How can film and television industries navigate the international media landscape?

Streaming services and their web of complexities is a reality that all content creators will have to grapple with. For content creators, there are clear detriments to geoblocking, especially when they are coupled with the broader issues that come with an outdated model of film distribution.

Be it for film festivals or on streaming services, there is a lack of essential information and feedback for filmmakers such as demographic information and number of views. These are vital for filmmakers to negotiate for better deals within the distribution network.

How the world handles digital distribution will not change overnight. But it’s not all doom and gloom especially if domestic distributors and studios work in tandem with filmmakers.

On a surface level, with so many streaming services cropping up, the competition for supremacy have pushed each to provide better deals and incentives to filmmakers. This, in turn, could provide even better content for consumers. Even with digital barriers, streaming services can also provide unprecedented opportunities for filmmakers to showcase their works to international audiences.

However, for sustainability sake, the demand for valuable streaming information has to be brought up and addressed by filmmakers. Yet, filmmakers alone may not be able to accomplish this task.

How geoblocking could be seen to directly benefit film and television industries is how they could open up opportunities for growth and where scarcity breeds competition. It could be through competition amongst domestic broadcasters to negotiate and acquire geolocked content, or for domestic filmmakers to step up and fill in the entertainment gap. 

Being able to capitalise on the advantages and soften the disadvantages will depend on whether industries have the capacity, willpower, and domestic support necessary. 

South Korean entertainment has taken over the world but it is not an empire that was built overnight. Strong governmental support in its early years led to a vibrant domestic industry, which gave opportunities for talented filmmakers to shine and grow. This strong base has enabled South Korea to capitalise on global technological shifts to expand abroad. 

Released in 2019, ‘Kingdom’ is Netflix’s first original Korean series / Image credit: Netflix

Local industry players felt threatened by Netflix’s entry into the South Korean market in 2016. However, the industry’s innate vibrancy allowed for benefits of competition to shine, with domestic powerhouses striking up alliances to fend off the streaming giant.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Netflix has taken advantage of the South Korean industry either. In fact, the streaming service has only further propagated and expedited South Korean entertainment and culture’s global reach. 

Domestic distributors have been savvy to not geoblock most of their content on the service. Algorithms also push, recommend and expose international audiences to South Korean films and television series. Furthermore, these are excluding the millions of dollars invested by Netflix to create original content. South Korea has shown that it is more than possible for underdogs (at least when compared to US powerhouses) to thrive in the media landscape. 


To return back to the Singaporean consumer frustrated with Netflix Singapore’s library, the truth of the matter is it’s all subjected to forces beyond the control of domestic authorities — at least most of the time. As recently as last year, the IMDA has requested the streaming giant to remove five films from its lineup. 

Thankfully for Singaporeans, VPNs are available to pierce the geoblocking veil. And if an introductory article on VPNs on a Singapore government agency website is any indication, there might not be plans on banning the technology any time soon. 

Geoblocking of streaming content is an extra, easily surpassable barrier that mainly benefits large media companies at the price of a bevvy of negative consequences. Fragmentation and geoblocking, leading to certain products being unavailable or hidden behind another subscription, have pushed users back to piracy or VPNs. Both cases do not benefit filmmakers, especially when traditional — and outdated —models of distribution have been replicated in the online space.

With a growing number of people signing up for VPNs, crackdowns on the technology might become an important matter to media conglomerates and streaming platforms in the near future. Governments might have to comply, especially if these MNCs are heavy investors. It may not be a matter of “if” but “when”.

Netflix plans to invest USD$700M in original Korean content in 2021, including Korean stand-up comedy starring prolific comedian Lee Su-geun / Image credit: Netflix

The explosion of South Korean culture in recent years has highlighted the importance of investing and supporting their entertainment industry in its early years. How Korean dramas and films are able to thrive on Netflix is the country’s well-earned victory lap. The production of a Netflix original stand-up comedy special in Korean to be broadcasted around the world is the country’s celebratory dance while most of the world trail far behind.   

As long as the internet exists, piracy will exist. And it is through the country’s commanding influence in entertainment that will be able to muffle — but not stamp out — issues of piracy, where profits will be raked in from more than just streaming subscriptions or purchases. 

South Korean culture has grown from obscurity to being undeniable on the global stage in the span of less than a generation. It may not be too late to start. Streaming services, from all their advantages of reach to thorny issues such as geoblocking, is a reality that everyone will have to grapple with.

For consumers, it’s only going to get worse from here. However, for countries with huge portions of GDP reliant on culture and image ala tourism, there is still a choice. 

Banner image credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters via Unsplash

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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