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Geo-blocking prevents shoppers in some countries from accessing cheaper prices overseas through Internet Service Provider (ISP) restrictions.
We look at how international companies such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft conduct geo-blocking, and offer some tips to circumvent the price discrimination.
What is geo-blocking?The internet is a borderless world – news, shopping and social interaction with people from all over the world is at our fingertips. But some online retailers haven’t yet embraced this fact, relying instead on copyright and licensing restrictions to vary prices around the world – what’s known as “geo-blocking”.
Restricting access to content based on geographic location is a popular strategy used by multinational tech giants so they can set different prices in different regions of the globe. The frustrating reality of geo-blocking is common for Australian consumers, who are often charged hefty mark-ups on products from companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, based on their IP address.
While Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are among the main culprits, streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu also divide the globe into random segments, only to grant access to those with a certain IP address (the numerical address that identifies your computer).
A CHOICE analysis, conducted in June this year for a parliamentary inquiry into IT price discrimination and based on online prices of more than 200 products, found Australian consumers pay an average of 50% more for PC games, 34% more for software, 52% more for iTunes music, 41% more for computer hardware and a huge 88% more for Wii games than our US counterparts. Although these prices don’t take into account the average 9.6% US sales tax (iTunes prices also don’t include Australian GST), the mark-up remains considerable nonetheless.
Fortunately for Australian consumers there are other options that allow you to navigate your way around invisible boundaries to access more content and cheaper prices – see right.
For more information about shopping online, see Networking and internet.
Is it legal?The legality of circumventing geo-blocking is a grey area. Some copyright experts claim those who promote devices or programs that encourage people to infringe copyright are breaking the law. However, CHOICE believes consumers who circumvent measures used to protect copyrighted content should be exempt from what could be construed as a breach of copyright simply because they’re accessing products and services that are being provided knowingly and willingly by the copyright holder.
It is legal to use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect your online transactions from hackers, and there’s little definitive evidence as to whether other uses of a VPN breach copyright law.
It’s also important to note that circumventing geo-blocks may breach the terms and conditions of the company you’re buying from, and if discovered, your account could be cancelled, losing credit and access to your downloads.
According to the ACCC, your rights when dealing with overseas-based companies to buy products may not be protected by Australian law. While some companies, such as Apple, have international warranties, others, such as Canon and Nintendo, say they refuse to recognise products purchased internationally under domestic consumer law.
How do I get stuff shipped?The price is often right with online retailers until you reach the checkout, only to be told shipping to Australia isn’t possible. Third-party delivery services, such as MyUS.com, Lil’ Shoppa, Bongo and Australian-based company Price USA, remove physical shipping barriers, opening up new shopping opportunities for Australian consumers.
From computers to clothing, the basic principle is the same: you purchase the product, enter the warehouse address of the parcelforwarding service you choose, and wait until they redirect the mail to your Australian address. Some companies, such as Price USA, actually buy the product on your behalf.
To read more about thirdparty forwarding services see our article, Shopping online for overseas goods.
How do I access movies, TV shows and software usually unavailable in Australia?Imagine a virtual tunnel from your lounge room to a computer in the US or UK capable of disguising your IP address and bringing you a constant stream of movies and TV shows, as well as access to heavily discounted software downloads. This is exactly what a virtual private network (VPN) does. As a client connecting to a VPN server that’s in the same country as the site you’re attempting to access, you have unimpeded access to services and purchases usually unavailable to Australian residents.
There are hundreds of free and paid VPN service providers available online. Some of the popular options include TorVPN, LogMeIn Hamachi, Hotspot Shield, HMA, IPVanish and Overplay. Opening the Netflix or Hulu webpage while connected to a VPN server in the US allows you to successfully set up an account if you use a legitimate US postal address.
The alternative to using a VPN is to adopt a US-based Domain Name System (DNS) server, such as unblock-us.com, for about $5 per month. Rerouting your internet connection through a DNS server – a simple configuration in your computer’s network preferences – can also trick the site you’re attempting to access into believing you are in fact elsewhere.
If documentaries or international news is your thing, you can access BBC iPlayer and international news networks, usually blocked here in Australia, in a similar way.