Locked Up In Regions

The history of region-locking, a once-unintentional process of keeping devices built for one region from being used in another. (Now Apple’s doing it.)

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: It’s not unheard of for smartphones to be tied to specific countries—until recently, for example, OnePlus limited its midrange R line to the Indian market—but the decision by Apple to comply with new European Union rules requiring the company to allow sideloading and alternative browsers on iOS opens up a new front in the history of the smartphone. Simply put, numerous features are being region-locked to an entire continent to comply with a law. Today’s Tedium considers the history of region-locking, why it’s so frustrating, and why it persists despite the fact that consumers generally hate it. Is Apple about to learn how many of its users are willing to jump over borders to use something other than the App Store? — Ernie @ Tedium

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Power outlets

Imagine how much easier the world would be if everyone used the same outlet. (Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash)

The roots of region locking: Our convoluted approach to plugs & sockets

The thing is, standardization is often a complicated thing to pull off across regions, and some countries chose to do things their own way. This is often talked about in terms of electronics, but also appears in other forms. (See North America’s decision to favor a screw thread not used in most other parts of the world.)

There were generally grounded reasons to do these things. For example, if your goal is to spread your influence across different parts of your global empire—say, if you’re the United Kingdom, and you have colonies in far-away lands—creating a standard that allows you to put your mark on the world allows you to define your reach.

This is effectively region-locking—you’re stuck using a tool specific to a certain country—but it’s not necessarily intentional, like many modern forms of region-locking are. Power sockets are an excellent example of unintentional region-locking in action—they tie electronics, which may have different electrical rules and interference standards in other countries, to a handful of specific regions.

These competing standards, for decades, made it challenging to travel across borders. It led to funky workarounds—particularly the use of complicated travel converters, which both look ugly and are complicated to use. (And just try screwing an American screw into a European thread. You’ll be laughed off the continent.)

And poor region-management could even create unintended challenges, and could cut your country off from the rest of the world. A good example of this is South Africa. When the country was first made independent in 1931, it used the same plug standard that was common in the United Kingdom at the time. The UK then switched to another plug standard, but South Africa stuck with what it had used at the time of independence, which over time resulted in challenges keeping its plugs compatible with other parts of the world. (The country also faced other problems with isolation on the world stage during this period, completely unrelated to their choice of power sockets.)

Another example of this sort of de facto region locking in action came in the form of differing television standards. In much of North and South America (along with, important for the history of video games, Japan), the nearly 30 frames per second NTSC format was the standard, while the higher resolution (but slightly slower) PAL standard covered many other countries. However, a third standard, SECAM, a format similar to (but not compatible with) PAL, was actually more popular than NTSC, and was used in numerous other countries, most notably Russia and France. People debate which standard is better all the time, because that’s what people do on the internet.

If you were a content owner, this came with some nice side effects. For obvious reasons, film studios were wary of VHS, even though it ultimately ended up being a good thing for them. These differing global standards created a de facto state of region locking that ultimately benefited them. After all, playing a PAL VHS tape on an NTSC player was a great way to end up with a bunch of junk on your television set. The result: If you wanted to limit the sale of content to the European market, you wouldn’t have to worry about people importing it to the U.S. without having to do a lot of extra conversion work. The TV sets and power adapters effectively enforced the contract for you.

Of course, region locking happens naturally, too. Language often region-locks information to specific groups of people. If you don’t have the right currency, it’s a lot harder to participate in a given society. And if you don’t know the customs of a country you’re visiting, you may be locked out of certain cultural experiences.

But there was a point where region locking turned from an interesting side effect of regional technology in a global world into a tool for control. And that point started to make itself known in the mid-1980s.


The year that ME-TA, a Turkish Atari licensee that shouldn’t be confused with the former Facebook, began developing its own unique approach to region locking, by flipping the pins on its cartridges so that they only worked on their machines—a primitive, but effective, trick. As AtariSpot explained on the site I call Twitter back in 2022, this actually predates the more famous (and successful) attempts at region locking with the Nintendo Entertainment System by a little more than a year.

Nintendo once worked around its own region-lock in the early days of the NES by including Famicom converters in some early cartridges. (They had plenty of room; NES carts are mostly hollow.)

How region locking became a tool for corporate control

A Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge is generally more than half-empty. There is no reason it needs to be as large as it is. But Nintendo, seeking control over the distribution of video games on its console, wanted it that way.

Nintendo used numerous techniques to prevent or at least discourage the use of games from other regions, including changing the pin design of the cartridges, using a different loading mechanism for the games, adding a marketing seal to official titles, and including a “lockout chip,” which limited who could produce and sell games. While it wasn’t 100% effective, it was successful enough that Nintendo built a successful market for its system in the long run.

That said, much of this stuff was technically unnecessary—and it created some interesting situations that, if you’re a video game collector, you know pretty well. Most famously, a handful of the earliest NES games, including Ice Climber, Gyromite, and Stack-Up, sometimes hid Famicom adapters, allowing the company to reuse existing circuit boards from Japan for games already in English, without having to significantly change the hardware. (It also meant that workarounds for Nintendo’s region-locking were actually hiding in these cartridges!)

As we’ve noted in the past, this was an intentional strategy on Nintendo’s part, and one that led to lots of legal action. It would inspire region-locking copycats among video game manufacturers—Sony, Sega, and Microsoft did this for years, for example.

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The NEC PC-98 had a feature that effectively region-locked the platform—proprietary language support. (htomari/Flickr)

The region-locking can also appear in more subtle ways. A good example of this is the NEC PC-98, which used much of the same hardware as IBM PCs in the Western market, except for a proprietary BIOS and additional hardware that allowed it to display Japanese characters, which created a situation in which NEC and other major manufacturers had a de facto region-lock on the Japanese PC market for many years, ensuring the company had a huge market share.

It was something that only changed when the demand for compatibility with MS-DOS and Windows effectively forced their hand and opened up the broader market. (DOS/V, an industry initiative that added Japanese character support to VGA-supporting computers with MS-DOS without additional hardware, eventually helped.) NEC could have made it easier to build compatibility between IBM’s machines and the PC-98—it just chose not to, at least not to the degree it could have. After all, NEC had more than 60 percent of the Japanese PC market. Why would it want to ruin that?

Eventually, this form of region locking was baked into industry standards. While audio CDs and CD-ROMs were region free, their video-playing successor, the DVD, definitely weren’t. Technical reasons were partly to blame—the DVD was released in the era just before HDTV helped standardize video output quality, and PAL, SECAM, and NTSC remained widespread, but incompatible.

But the reason was also very much business related. Movie studios wanted to release movies on their own preferred schedule, without having to worry about discs from other parts of the world running on players built for other places. As a 1997 CNET story makes clear, it was a must-have for companies like Disney.

“We wanted to make sure regional coding was going to be enforced, and if we waited too long before we entered the marketplace, we felt the regional coding could have potentially broken down,” said Michael Johnson, then-president of Buena Vista Distribution, which managed home video sales for the Mouse House.

Companies like Microsoft and Intel, along with the DVD manufacturers, simply had to play ball if they wanted this standard to work.

As TV standards became less regional in the internet age, some of this region-locking went away. Most recent video game consoles have been region-free. But some of it stuck around, and even took new forms. The battle between HD-DVD and Blu-ray favored Sony, which was bad news for consumers, because HD-DVD was the first major disc standard to go region-free.

While it’s very possible to find region-free options for both DVDs and Blu-rays today, it definitely wasn’t the case way back when.

But something interesting happened at the start of the last decade, which highlighted how region-locking would evolve in the internet era. On June 30, 2010, Google decided to exit the Chinese market, no longer willing to violate the privacy and freedom of Chinese customers to serve the country. It was a brave, noble stance, a rare one for big tech. (Google undercut it years later by trying to get back in, but the outcry convinced them that was a bad idea.)

In many ways, it showed that in the internet era, region-locking was only going to get even more involved and dynamic.

“Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issues and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism.”

— A message posted to the website of the Chicago Tribune in response to the General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect in the European Union in mid-2018. During this period, the Tribune, operated by a company comically named Tronc, was infamous for its poor corporate decision-making. The company would rather shut off access to a paper of record for an entire continent than comply with a privacy law they had years to prepare for.

I had to connect to a VPN to watch this show in full.

Region-locking in the streaming age—or the feature that made VPNs go mainstream

About a year ago, I found myself in the unenviable position of my favorite comedy troupe, Aunty Donna, releasing a new TV show—one I couldn’t access through normal means because it was only released in Australia. Bummer, right?

Fortunately, I was still able to watch through a virtual private network, which routed my internet connection through Australia as if I lived there, and got all the references of this very Australian show I liked.

If you’ve watched YouTube anytime over the past decade, you’ve most assuredly seen ads for a VPN service just like the one I used.

We can blame two services for this state of affairs: Netflix, which shaped how viewers accessed premium video content online, and the BBC’s iPlayer, whose business model was specifically developed for the United Kingdom, but whose interest commonly goes well beyond its own borders.

Let’s start with the BBC. There is a logical reason why British television was effectively region-blocked: As anyone who lives in the UK knows, accessing television in the country requires paying for a yearly license, which this year is going for £169.50. The problem is, we live in a world where we instantly want to access new content, and the BBC has hugely popular shows like Dr. Who. While the BBC has made rumblings about making iPlayer globally accessible, it hasn’t happened—which ensures guides for accessing iPlayer through VPNs are everywhere.

Netflix, meanwhile, has a completely different problem—it has to work out deals to bring content to different countries, and often, what it plays in one market doesn’t air in any other. (To offer one example of many: Better Call Saul, airing on AMC in the United States, was a Netflix original in most other parts of the world. For its first few seasons, if you wanted to stream it, you either had to use cable, wait for it to premiere on Netflix, or use a VPN.)

How’d Netflix get around this mess? It changed its rules for VPNs and started doing everything it could to ban them. Officially, the service says VPNs are allowed, but it specifically blocks off region-limited shows for VPN users, limiting the appeal of the option.

Netflix’s cat-and-mouse approach shows that in the internet age, big companies are willing to fight fire with fire to keep their region-locking in place. After all, they get paid a lot of good money for all that content.

“Regional lockout both reflects and shapes the world’s geocultural divisions. It does so in its effects on digital technologies’ affordances and capabilities, the distribution routes that media take around the world, and the ways media reinforce cultural capital and cultural differences at broad, transnational scales.”

— Author Evan Elkins, in his 2019 book Locked Out: Regional Restrictions in Digital Entertainment Culture, which analyzes each of the issues discussed in today’s issue in more depth. If you want to consider this issue of region-locking in more depth, it’s a great option.

So, all this brings us back to the sorry state of affairs with the iPhone. Apple is known for region-locking to some degree—there are some apps only available on the App Store in some parts of the world. And obviously, telephones have a long history of working differently based on what region you live in. But what Apple is trying to do with the alternative app stores and rule changes is a different beast entirely.

Essentially, Apple, which really didn’t want sideloading, is trying to comply with a legal regulation as to-the-letter as possible, without giving a single inch anywhere else in the world. It is essentially trying to use region locking to minimize compliance as much as possible, an approach similar to its right-to-repair strategy, which is much more cumbersome than it needs to be because Apple doesn’t want you to do it.

App Store

It’s so weird that Apple is region-locking app downloading, isn’t it? (James Yarema/Unsplash)

It is playing both offense (requiring the operators of other app stores in the region to follow its very specific requirements for how to run) and defense (making it so undesirable to do something like this that few companies will be willing to go to all this trouble). The term “malicious compliance” has been thrown about, for obvious reasons.

And honestly, one can understand why Apple wants to comply maliciously. It likes the extremely profitable way things were running before; it wants to lose as little of that as possible. It doesn’t want to give another inch.

In a way, it’s similar to Nintendo’s vintage region-locking approach. But while it made Nintendo a lot of money, it was ultimately unsuccessful in keeping ideas and products intended for other markets out of the hands of consumers. Or all those cinephiles who wanted to access movies from other DVD or Blu-ray regions and were willing to do weird hacks to do so.

Apple has some of the best technology in the world. Its encryption technology is considered top-tier. But I have a feeling, knowing the customers it has fostered over the past 48 years, that it will have a hard time keeping users outside the EU away from sideloading for long.

Every region lock will inevitably fail.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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