The Digital Media Wars and VPNs - Project ENE

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The Digital Media Wars and VPNs

For years now people have been using proxies and VPN (Virtual private network) services to hide their real location.  Some do it for security reasons, particularly VPNs which encrypt your traffic whereas many people use it because they feel locked out of their favourite sites.

Take for example a British citizen who usually watches the BBC and other UK TV stations online.   This is something many people do, yet the moment this person travels outside the UK then all these channels will be blocked.  Same goes for the US TV viewer who leaves the States and suddenly finds channels like HBO, NBC and Hulu no longer work.   It’s incredible that the digital world is restricted like this, the internet breaks down communication barriers and we work to build up artificial walls again.


The reasons are mainly related to money and copyright issues, maximising profits means restricting people’s access and the licensing of media is simply not suited to a globally connected world.  It creates huge problems for people especially those who have actually paid for their access and it’s suddenly removed simply because they’ve gone on holiday or traveled to another country.

All this filtering and blocking is done by IP address, the web sites determine your location using this alone.  So if you’re connected via a coffee shop in Rome then you’ll have an Italian address and so on.  The region locking like this can actually be defeated using these VPN services, because you can pick a server in a particular country and that is where you’ll appear to be.

It works quite well, although it does mean your connection is routed through a different country for no real reason.   Millions of people use these services every day to access their favorite sites, however the media companies don’t like this at all.  Companies like the BBC have started to block these VPNs – read this although most of the major VPN companies are able to bypass these blocks.

The biggest blow by far to the VPN functionality was struck by Netflix who effectively blocked over 90% of these services working in a single blow.   They did this by not blocking individual address ranges like the other media companies but by blocking a category of IP addresses.   Netflix were able to stop most VPN access by blocking all access from commercial based IP addresses which of course included the vast majority of VPN providers.  There were a couple who survived by updating their infrastructure and providing a residential VPN service – useful link. However using domestic IP addresses is more difficult and costs the providers much more.

The reality is though is you want to access Netflix from a country not supported or to switch to a different region you’ll have to do it using a residential IP address.   It is still possible but the options are much diminished and it’s likely the cost will increase – this is particularly likely if the other online media companies adopt this method.

It may happen but there are caveats which might put other companies off.   For example if you block access from commercial IP addresses, it means that nobody can watch from their work PC or laptops which of course will all have commercial addresses.  It might not be a big deal for a purely entertainment company like Netflix but for news media sites like the BBC it would appear overly restrictive.

This is a digital war, media companies are trying to control the way we access the internet.  It is up to us to ensure they don’t get to make that choice.

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