Stranger VPNs: Investigating the Geo-Unblocking Capabilities of Commercial VPN Providers

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Commercial Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers have steadily increased their presence in Internet culture. Their most advertised use cases are preserving the user’s privacy, or circumventing censorship. However, a number of VPN providers nowadays have added what they call a streaming unblocking service. In practice, such VPN providers allow their users to access streaming content that Video-on-Demand (VOD) providers do not provide in a specific geographical region.

In this work, we investigate the mechanisms by which commercial VPN providers facilitate access to geo-restricted content, de-facto bypassing VPN-detection countermeasures by VOD providers (blocklists). We actively measure the geo-unblocking capabilities of 6 commercial VPN providers in 4 different geographical regions during two measurements periods of 7 and 4 months respectively. Our results identify two methods to circumvent the geo-restriction mechanisms. These methods consist of: (1) specialized ISPs/hosting providers which do not appear on the blocklists used by content providers to geo-restrict content and (2) the use of residential proxies, which due to their nature also do not appear in those blocklists. Our analysis shows that the ecosystem of the geo-unblocking VPN providers is highly dynamic, adapting their chosen geo-unblocking mechanisms not only over time, but also according to different geographical regions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPassive and Active Measurement
Subtitle of host publication24th International Conference, PAM 2023, Virtual Event, March 21–23, 2023, Proceedings
EditorsAnna Brunstrom, Marcel Flores, Marco Fiore
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9783031284861
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2023
Event24th International Conference on Passive and Active Measurement, PAM 2023 - Virtual, Online
Duration: 21 Mar 202323 Mar 2023
Conference number: 24


Conference24th International Conference on Passive and Active Measurement, PAM 2023
Abbreviated titlePAM 2023
CityVirtual, Online


  • 2023 OA procedure


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