"Geoblocking here to stay: Viocorp" was the headline of Josh Taylor's Sep. 27th article in which he interviewed Viocorp's CTO Rachel Dixon. For the unfamiliar, geoblocking is the media practice of attempting to restrict access to content based on estimates of where consumers are accessing from. It is the technology that prevents non-US consumers from accessing Hulu or Netflix and what prevents non-Australian viewers from viewing the ABC News 24 online stream.
There's broadly two reasons providers geoblock. The first is to preserve the provider's ability to sell the same content into multiple markets on different terms, usually to preserve the ability to charge markets differently. Online movie services want to charge Australians a high price because Australians are particularly tolerant of paying above the odds, but conversely people in Malaysia can't afford and won't pay those prices. To avoid Australians simply going to onlinemovies.my and paying the Malaysian prices, providers need a technological intervention. The second reason is what we see in the ABC's News 24 live stream situation; most of the content is made by the ABC and they have rights to stream it, but when they show footage they have purchased the rights to as part of their news broadcast they are forbidden as part of their agreement to show that footage to other regions (which must purchase it themselves again off the provider). This second reason is in effect honouring a contractual obligation to a content owner who is utilising the first reason - just viewed from the other angle.
What is most interesting about Taylor's article, and Rachel Dixon's comments, is to consider whether or not geoblocking is in fact here to stay, or if it's indeed even still viable. Dixon's comments in the ZDNet article seem to be resigned to a method that the rights holders think is a good idea (her tone is sceptical), but scrutiny is higher than ever and consumers' ability to refuse to play along is pervasive. The recent inquiry into IT pricing which tabled its report at the end of July 2013 looked into the matter more than most commentators were expecting (most technology industry press keenly focussed on the disparity in online-delivered software and media prices on platforms such as Apple's iTunes), In chapter 4 is some of the most switched-on government wording around technology to have been revealed in quite some time.
As the Committee has been advised, consumers have developed many ways to improve their ability to access content despite geoblocking mechanisms. According to Ms Erin Turner from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network:
... consumers, due to the high prices in Australia, use a number of methods to purchase overseas—or at least the particularly savvy consumers do. They might shop while they are travelling; they might purchase through online stores that know they are selling to Australia; or, as we are increasingly seeing, services are offered on online—virtual private networks or even stores—that give you a fake US address and then courier products to Australia. They allow you to access those cheaper products
ACCAN rarely miss a beat and their representation at the inquiry wasn't any different. The chapter goes on to point out how easy it is to use VPNs, how the uptake is improving, but then there's a fairly exciting crescendo. The report went into the legalities. Most pertinent is whether the attorney general's department considered that circumventing a geoblock is illegal.
AGD noted that ‘the relevant provisions of the Copyright Act have not been tested by a court. There are no judicial decisions that provide any further guidance as to whether a particular technology would be considered a TPM or not. However on the basis of a plain English reading of the definition, AGD:
... considers it unlikely that the technologies discussed would fall within the definition of an ‘access control technological protection measure’. Where a geoblocking technology is not a technological protection measure, the Copyright Act does not prevent a person bypassing that geoblocking technology
This is important. In Australia piracy on its own is not illegal. Downloading movies and TV shows just because you can't wait for Breaking Bad has no criminal sanction and in most circumstances civil sanction would be limited to the cost of what was downloaded and legal fees - and that's never happened. Circumventing what's called a "TPM" is one of the few areas in Australian copyright law, along with commercial scale infringement, public performance and a few other gregarious misbehaviours in which an individual can get into trouble with the law. In this instance it seems that the department doesn't consider geoblocking to be a measure in the same league as encryption schemes like Apple's Fairplay which makes movies hard or impossible to copy. This section of the report concluded with a recommendation;
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government amend the Copyright Act’s section 10(1) anti-circumvention provisions to clarify and secure consumers’ rights to circumvent technological protection measures that control geographic market segmentation.
In English, the committee recommends the government take it from being very unlikely that geoblock circumvention is illegal and clarify that it absolutely is not. An astonishing assertion. So is Rachel Dixon outright wrong? Is the momentum against geoblocking clear and the wishes of content providers clinging to distribution models their markets won't tolerate an ongoing thing?
I think geoblocking is probably dated and I doubt we'll see it in eight years time. I'd have said five before the current attorney general was sworn in as his sympathies for the content lobby have been clearly stated and we won't get that recommendation enshrined in law on his watch. But the direction the market is thirsty for is clear. Consumers just don't intrinsically understand why they should not be able to buy something because of the country they live in, because there's no reason why they shouldn't that is good for them. Either content providers, who are the only ones benefiting from geoblocking, give it up or the developers of tools to circumvent it will continue to innovate until it is trivial and almost free to simply walk around the boom gate. Internet users see access denied pages as something broken, and a cheap service to fix it as a solution. The law is standing still as to preventing this, because we just don't have the regulatory appetite to criminalise the act of pretending to a movie studio that you live in Columbus Ohio and not Elizabeth South Australia.
If you'd like access to US based content there are many options available, but good things are said about Unblock-Us. It's $4.99 a month.
Image: Peter aka anemoneprojectors