YouTube, Geoblocks and Proxies

Accessibility 4 All by Claude Almansi
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Geoblocking as censoreship measure

Screen shot of YouTube page saying This Site is Restricted

Screenshot of blocked YouTube video of PK President Zardari saying "Shut up!" during a rally - by Huma Imitaz. The message reads: "This Site is Restricted."

The above screenshot shows the page people in Pakistan got redirected to early on February 7, 2010, when they were trying to view a YouTube video of Pres. Asif Zardari saying “Shut up” to someone during a rally. In the rest of the world, the video could be seen normally:

So Pakistani advocates of freedom of information immediately started blogging, twittering and writing to mailing lists about the block, some of them advising how to by-pass it by using proxies such as can be found by looking up “YouTube” and “proxy” in a search engine.

Geoblocking as copyright measure

Screenshot of OK Go's YouTube channel when trying to view OK Go's "This Too Shall Come to Pass" from Switzerland. A message says: this video contains content from EMI. It is no longer available in your country

Screenshot of OK Go's YouTube channel when trying to view their "This Too Shall Come to Pass" video from Switzerland.

In the case of President Zardari’s “Shut up” video, the block was apparently enforced by the Pakistan Telecom Agency at the request of the government. However, for quite a while now, YouTube has been offering its partners automated audio and video content identification, which allows them to find uses by third parties of  content under their copyright. And on September 28, 2009, YouTube announced that it was integrating this offer with YouTube Insight, which also gives complete statistics on the use of a given video.

This allowed right holders to fine-tune the management of their rights on  their content when they found it on YouTube: getting their share of the ad revenue, completely blocking or geoblocking uploads by third parties. And as Liz Gannes wrote in her article about her interview with David King, Senior Product Manager of YT Content ID (From Monitor to Monetize: The Evolution of YouTube Content ID. Newteevee. Sept 28 09):

…Content is increasingly geoblocked, said King, so for instance, something that was uploaded in France could potentially be unavailable there because of local rights issues, but viewable in the rest of world. …

Proxies cannot tell the difference

Proxy servers enable you to surf the web as if you were in the country where they are. Therefore they cannot tell the difference between web pages that are geoblocked for censorship and those that are blocked for copyright management. Actually, they are not even aware of geoblocks.

But what is the legal situation when geoblocking is enforced as a copyright management mesure? In countries that have ratified the 1996 WIPO Copyright Treaty,  it is illegal to circumvent such measures, except for personal use, and it is illegal to publicize the existence of circumvention tools. So:

  • When people surf with a proxy to bypass censorship, do they violate copyright law if they happen to view a video they would otherwise be geoblocked from for copyright motives?
  • When human rights activists give info about using proxies to access geoblocked-for-censorship content, do they violate copyright law because the same proxies can be used to view geoblocked-for-copyright content?

Unchartered ground

Google search page with, in the search box: XML facilitates data exchange. Below, left and right, the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, labeled Major

Screenshot from Michael Wesch's "Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us" YouTube video and lion from William Wallace Denslow's illustrations for L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (source: Wikimedia)

When I asked Ben Edelman the above questions about online geoblocks and proxies, he answered:

(…) I don’t think any courts, in an country, have had occasion to consider this question (…) there’s lots of ground to cover — including what “circumvent” and “effectively constrains access” mean when a DRM system grants access to entire countries without charge or other restriction.  Certainly this is quite different from the core DRM (e.g. DVD players) that began notions [of] circumvention.

Indeed, and the meaning of  these words are also problematic in other countries where copyright law was adapted towards the ratification of the 1996 WIPO copyright treaty and WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty.

This is even true in Switzerland, where the revised version  of the copyright law (French text) only came into force on July 1, 2008. However,  its new articles on digital works and digital protection measures remained identical to their version in the 2004 draft, in spite of the radical changes in content distribution and sharing brought in the meantime by Web 2.0.

This creates headaches both for content users and for content producers. Geoblocks of multimedia works made some sense from the producers’ – if not from the consumers’ – viewpoint when such works were only available on material supports (DVDs, CDs): for a producer in country X to  have a chance to sell the rights on a given work to a producer in country Y, the work produced in country X had to be unavailable and unusable in country Y.  But attempting to apply this geoblocking policy to online multimedia just does not work, as the block can be bypassed by using a proxy. And as Grant Buckler wrote in Internet Geoblocking: How It Works And Why It’s Done ( Feb 17th, 2009):

(…) There are ways around geoblocking by disguising your computer’s IP address.

One of the most common ways is to use a service that relays your internet connection through a server in another country — most often the U.S. — so that you appear to be in that country. Content providers haven’t found a way to prevent this, and so far are simply tolerating it. (…)

(my emphasis).


As online geoblocking  does not work any better than plugging the bunghole of an old wooden cask that leaks through all stave joints, would music majors kindly leave it to tech-and-otherwise-benighted autocrats, please?

Proxy servers are – often literally – vital to people who live in dictatorial countries or in countries like Pakistan,  which has a more or less democratically elected government that nonetheless promulgated the ferociously repressive  Prevention of E-Crime Ordinance (PECO) last year. So these proxy servers must not get swamped by requests from fans who want to see their favorite band’s videos they are theoretically geoblocked from.

Bonus track

Of course, Pakistani civic rights militants also made many mirrors of the  “Zardari saying shut up” video shown at the beginning of this post. Someone even made a remix version:

Interestingly, the song used in the remix is “Shut Up” by Black Eyed Peas, available on YouTube without geoblock as a VEVO video:

even though, as the description says, it is a “Music video by Black Eyed Peas performing Shut Up. (C) 2003 Interscope Geffen (A&M) Records A Division of UMG Recordings Inc.” and even though its main site is geoblocked outside US. However, from the Wikipedia VEVO entry, VEVO might be a promising new business model:

Vevo is a music video and entertainment website. It is owned by Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Abu Dhabi Media Company. The service was launched officially on 8 December 2009. The video hosting for Vevo is provided by YouTube, with Google and Vevo sharing the advertising revenue. Vevo offers music videos from three of the four major record labels, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and EMI. (…).


The sites/pages mentioned in this post, and a few others, are gathered in


(From the newest to the oldest)

June 6, 2010: Pakistan:  Geoblocking by state and by Facebook

On May 19, 2010, as a consequence of  a lawsuit for blasphemy about the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” Facebook group, a court in Lahore ordered the Pakistan Telecom Authority to geoblock of Facebook, but also YouTube, Wikipedia and hundreds of other sites. For more information, see the Pakistan internet block section of  Everybody Draw Mohammed Day Wikipedia article.

This state geoblocking for blasphemy endangered the lives of  activists who opposed it in defense of freedom of expression and information, and possibly contributing – because of the heightening of religious tensions – to trigger the massacres at two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore on May 28, 2010. This geoblocking and these consequences  could have been avoided if Facebook administrators had enforced their terms of use instead of pandering to the hate mongerers of that “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” group (see Facebook Is Unfit for Educational Use on this blog).

When Bangladesh also blocked Facebook and India protested for the same reason, Facebook did not to remove offensive content according to its terms of use, but offered to geoblock it in these countries, and in Pakistan.   (see John Ribeiro’s  Facebook Block Removed in Pakistan, Imposed in Bangladesh. PC World. 2010-05-31). The block was removed after a few days in Bangladesh and in Pakistan. However, Justice Ejaz Ahmed Chaudry, of the Lahore Court who had first required it,  ordered the Pakistani government  “to enhance the monitoring of Facebook to make sure that incident is not repeated in future” and a First Information Report (FIR) was filed “against three Facebook owners Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and a lady named as Andy who had moved draw Mohammad campaign on Facebook,” (from Mehwish Khan’s FIR Registered Against Facebook Owners. Pro Pakistani. 2010-06-16) under the blasphemy law.

While there is little risk for the above-mentioned people to be ever extradited to Pakistan to be tried, the Pakistan Telecom Authority is apparently really monitoring – and not just Facebook, but citizens: in a message to the pakistanictpolicy Yahoo group, Zubair Faisal Abbasi forwarded a  reply from the Facebook team to a query about his inability to access his account:

—– Original Message —–
From: “The Facebook Team” <info+0z72mfx@…>
To: <abbasi.zubair@…>
Sent: Monday, June 21, 2010 12:43 PM
Subject: Re: Access Restricted (Bad IP)


Thanks for writing in to Facebook. We’re sorry you are experiencing problems
accessing your account. There is an ISP delivering Internet traffic to
certain IP addresses in Pakistan that is misconfigured in such a way that it
has the effect of exposing one user’s data to other users. This affects all
web sites, not just Facebook. In the interest of protecting our users’
privacy, we are blocking the ISP until their misconfiguration is resolved.
We are also reaching out to the appropriate administrators to help them
expedite their fix. In addition, we are working on automated ways to more
quickly detect third-party network errors like this.

You will not be able to use this ISP to access your Facebook account until
their error is resolved. We encourage you to contact your Internet service
provider to bring this error to their attention.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

The Facebook Team

In view of the context described above, this is worrying: the “error” that “has the effect of exposing one user’s data to other users” might well be a deliberate measure to allow Pakistani authorities to check what citizens are doing on Facebook. If so, the Facebook team’s decision to block itself to protect people from this state spying would be their first intelligent and ethical move in this affair.

March 6, 2010 – OK Go: This Too Shall Come to Pass

To illustrate the “Geoblocking as copyright measure” section, I used a screenshot of OK Go’s “This Too Shall Come to Pass” video, uploaded a month ago, as geoblocked by EMI in Switzerland. In non geoblocked countries, it can be viewed at, but not embedded. In fact, EMI also disabled embedding in YouTube videos with “their” content.  In Whose Tube? (New York Times op-ed, Feb. 20, 2010), Damian Kulash, the leader of the band, vibrantly opposed this embed ban, due to the fact that EMI has partnered with YouTube and thus gets a fraction of the revenue from the ads on YouTube pages where videos by their musicians are shown: if a video is embedded elsewhere, there is no YouTube ad revenue. Kulash contended that this did not compensate the drop in viewings of the videos – hence in free publicity – caused by the embed ban.

Now on March 1st (but I only got the YT notification today), OK Go published a new video on the same song, OK Go – This Too Shall Pass – Rube Goldberg Machine version, without geoblock, and with embedding enabled:

Now the first video gathered 1,065,422 views in a month: not bad, granted. However the second, unmaimed, video got 5,063,198 views in 5 days, which amply vindicates Kulash’s point. The way OK Go managed to convince EMI to lift the restrictions on this second video was to get State Farm Insurance to sponsor it, as explained by Ryan Denham in State Farm leaves mark on OK Go’s latest viral video (Pentagraph, March 4 2010): a very discreet sponsor, whose logo appears for 2 seconds at the beginning on the door of a toy truck, and  in a very short credit at the end.

Whether EMI will extend this solution to other videos by their artists remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the “making of”  videos of OK Go – This Too Shall Pass – Rube Goldberg Machine version, and the description of its realization by Adam Sadowsky from the point of view of synnlabs are capital illustrations of how collaborative research and development can work. The links to the relevant videos are gathered in this Diigo page.

2 Responses

  1. […] are Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report, and the American video service Hulu. YouTube also now engages in geoblocking of some […]

  2. “EMI has partnered with YouTube and thus gets a fraction of the revenue from the ads on YouTube pages where videos by their musicians are shown: if a video is embedded elsewhere, there is no YouTube ad revenue”

    That was apparently before Youtube started to plaster even the videos with ads – not that this stopped companies issuing embed bans.

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