Online Region Hopping Is It Illegal?

Online Region HoppingPretending they’re in America so they can stream certain content has become the modus operandi for computer users around the globe. Rob investigates the legal issues of region hoppingAnyone who regularly watches TV shows, films or other videos online will have come across the words ‘We’re sorry, but this video has not been made available in your region’ before. It can be infuriating to be denied access to content, especially in a world where many of us have access to hundreds of TV channels via Freeview, can access most pop music free-of-charge through Spotify, and/or use services like iPlayer to access a library of free film and television content at the click of a button.

Resultantly, many of us have probably thought something along these lines: ‘if it’s truly a world wide web, isn’t restricting access by our geographical location a tad archaic?’Well, on first thought, it certainly does seem that way. Beneath the initial question, though, lies a murky legal debate. We did some digging to try and get to the crux of the issue.VPNs (virtual private networks) have supplied one solution to this problem. You may use a VPN at work – a shared system where you and your colleagues store files. Indeed, you may even have one in your home. How is this relevant to region-locked videos, though? Well, a similar system of shared access has been used by several app developers to offer their customers a way around those irritating ‘not available in your region’ messages.Chief among the providers of this service is probably Hola, an app you’ve almost certainly heard of, or possibly even use on a regular basis yourself. Ofer Vilenski, the CEO of Hola, told Micro Mart that his company are “a P2P network for anonymity – a sort of extension to Google’s “incognito mode”, where we also help to keep your IP random.”Translated into layman’s terms, that essentially means that Hola helps its users to keep their location private from the websites they frequent. This is achieved through a shared peer-to-peer network where everyone who downloads the free version of the app makes his or her IP address free for borrowing.As a result, you can pretend to be in the USA by temporarily using an American IP address, and can gain access to all sorts of otherwise blocked content through the process. Unless you’re willing to pay for the premium service, someone on the other side of the Atlantic is probably borrowing your IP address at the same time. After all, there are programmes on British Netflix that aren’t on the American equivalent, too.According to Softonic, Hola Better Internet is the third most-downloaded browser add-on in the UK, after Facebook Messenger and AdBlock Plus. Worldwide, over 44 million users have downloaded a version of Hola since its launch in 2008.Taken at face value, then, the services of Hola seem like a popular and ideal solution to those pesky region-based annoyances that the internet likes to throw at us. However, not everyone is a fan of the idea.Hulu (not to be confused with Hola, guys, those vowels are important) is an online company based in America. It offers a wide selection of television and film content, from cartoons to indie flicks, to sports documentaries and blockbusters. In the US, a lot of its library is available for free. You can pay to get shows quicker and in higher definition, if you like.In the UK, though, the entire service is unavailable. Like American TV channels, Hulu only has the rights to screen its content in the USA and its territories. Well, that was the case until they branched out into Japan in 2013, at least. The rules remain the same though – they only have the rights to distribute content in those countries, not anywhere else. Therefore, to cheat your way on to its service certainly breaking a few rules. It breaches the legally binding terms and conditions, too.In 2009, Hulu attempted to launch a service in the UK and Ireland, but discussions with major British broadcasters apparently broke down before the project could come to fruition. Legally, then, its library simply isn’t meant for Britons.In April 2014, Hulu took a strict stance against locating-shifting internet users. Hulu publically announced that they were cutting access for visitors of their site who were using anonymous proxy servers that hide users true locations:”A proxy server works as sort of a middleman between a personal computer and the Internet,” the announcement explained. “In practice, anonymous proxies are used to hide information about a person’s personal computer so they can browse the web anonymously – and sometimes access a site that is restricted to a certain geography.””Due to contractual limitations, Hulu is unable to stream videos to users of anonymous proxy servers because of possible geographical limitations,” it was clarified. “If our system determines that your computer is behind an anonymous proxy, you will need to disable it before you can access videos on Hulu again.”There were complaints at the time that this decision would affect American citizens who relied on VPNs to access the service. Military personnel, particularly those serving abroad, were popular examples of those whose viewing patterns would be damaged by the decision.This was hardly a perfect fix, and, to this day, users of Hola can still technically access Hulu using the services provided by the regionhopping specialists (even though Hola’s T&Cs urge you not to breach anyone else’s T&Cs). Hulu’s crackdown affected a few known proxy server users, but the sheer range of shared peer-to-peer VPNs utilised by Hola were impossible to shut out, it would seem.So, if technological attempts have failed to crack down on those who circumvent terms and conditions of streaming websites via borrowed VPNs, what other options are there? One idea is to punish the customers. It might sound drastic, but this process is currently being considered.Netflix – arguably the best-known online content provider – has some specific notes in its terms and conditions that attempt to cut down on those who are using VPNs to access content made available to other countries. The company, which announced profits of $83.4 million in the last quarter of 2014, has this stipulation in its contract:”The content that may be available to watch will vary by geographic location. Netflix will use technologies to verify your geographic location,” the Netflix Terms of Use state. And later on: “we may terminate or restrict your use of our service, without compensation or notice, if you are, or if we suspect that you are, (i) in violation of any of these terms of use or (ii) engaged in illegal or improper use of the service.”Although there’s little proof that this rule is enforced all that much, further announcements have confirmed that it is a ‘violation of terms’ to use to a VPN to access the Netflix library of another country or territory. Again, content licensing restrictions are the problem here. For varying reasons, distributors of films and television shows are rarely willing (or perhaps, able) to sell a package allowing unrestricted global access to their content.A Netflix representative told The Independent, “by way of background, what we do is nothing different than what traditional TV networks do to prevent, for example, someone from outside the US watching the Olympics on”Further background: We are working to become a global internet TV network and, as part of that, will have more global rights to series, features, docs, comedy specials, etc. This should make this whole issue moot over time.”Arguably, this is the crux of the issue. In this day and age, there are enough internet masterminds in play that, even if Netflix and Hulu could shut down the likes of Hola, another ‘workaround’ would probably present itself to avid online streaming fans in a matter of minutes.Either way, the problem would remain: why isn’t more content globally available in a legal way, if it’s so easy to cheat the system? Millions of customers are willing to pay subscription fees to the likes of Hulu, Netflix and HBO (which has also waded into the argument over recent months), but why should the access to the movies and TV shows that they love be determined by their address in this day and age? Are we not a global community online?More and more, viewers are expecting to have access to their entertainment of choice at the same time as everybody else. However, in many cases, the entertainment industry is clinging to the idea of regional distribution rights which divide up the globe for their convenience. Therefore, you end up with every single episode of Friends being available on American Netflix, and nothing of the sort on the English version. Both Hulu’s attempted crackdown and Netflix’s threats to shut down accounts both point to one fact: online streaming services are trying to respect their region-based deals with distributors, despite the fact that bypassing the relevant border via a VPN has never been easier.This makes perfect sense, from a business standpoint, considering that these deals with distributors are surely lucrative contracts for the companies involved. We can see this in how things have come to a head in Australia. There, the government is now considering passing a bill that would make using VPNs to access foreign streams and bypass regional copyright laws a criminal offence. The bill under consideration states that “copyright owners would be able to apply directly to the Federal Court for an injunction to disable access to an infringing online location… The injunction power would only apply to online locations operated outside Australia.”Essentially, this means that if you’re in Australia, and using a VPN to access content meant for audiences outside of Australia, the copyright owners could ask the government for permission to shut your connection down altogether. Again, the idea here seems to be in favour of supporting the copyright owners (as in, the owners and distributors) at the same time as restricting the library available to the individual viewers.The reason Australia is considered such a hotbed for VPN usage? That’d be because only 18 of the 100 most popular shows on American Netflix are available on the Australian version. These customers are paying the same amount, should they really be denied access to the likes of Breaking Bad, Sherlock and Twin Peaks? The service can explain away such anomalies as much as it likes, but it hardly seems fair.Quite simply, a paying customer utilising an online service is surely entitled the same treatment, regardless of their whereabouts. However, before this can be the case in terms of streaming media, there needs to be some big changes in the way content is distributed before any disparity is likely to change. Netflix, with its aims to broker a global library of content, will hopefully be first to buck the trend. After that, perhaps the rest will follow suit.

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