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Content, Geographic Restrictions, VPN’s, and Fairness

October 21, 2015

BBC has started blocking access to their iPlayer service from anyone trying to connect through a VPN.

To understand why this is controversial and gets at a much larger issue, you need to know a few things about the BBC (besides when they’ll be producing the next season of Sherlock!), about VPN’s, and about geographic restrictions.

The Background:

The BBC is actually a publicly funded entertainment company in that it receives a large amount of money from the British government to produce content.  That money is raised through what is effectively a tax on UK citizens (or at least UK citizens who watch TV content).  Thus, unlike content on NBC, Fox, or HBO, one could consider BBC content as already having been “paid for” by UK citizens once it is produced.  As such, the BBC makes a lot of this content available for free to UK citizens through their iPlayer (particularly recent content).  Viewers from other countries may not access the iPlayer, with the justification that they have not “paid for” the content yet. However, through the company BBC Worldwide, BBC does make content available to people in other countries in a variety of ways, such as licensing it to over-the-air channels, digital streaming services like Netflix, digital download services like iTunes, etc.  Revenues from these deals offset the amount of “tax” that needs to be collected to produce BBC content (I don’t know if it is viewed that way at BBC or not, but from an economic perspective this is effectively the case – if BBC Worldwide were not selling the content abroad, BBC would need more money to produce what it is currently producing).

The Dilemma:

Individuals outside the UK could effectively access free BBC content through the iPlayer if they used a VPN to be appear to be connecting from within the UK (not unlike, say, Aussies who accessed US Netflix using a VPN long before it was introduced to Australia… except that said Aussies paid the Netflix subscription fee).  To stop this, it is reported that BBC has blocked connections coming from a VPN.

The Techdirt take on this (linked above) is that this also blocks some UK citizens who want to connect through a VPN from doing so, though BBC is attempting to mitigate this.  In a world (post-Snowden, as techdirt notes) where people want privacy, this is costly to people.  This is a legitimate point.  Techdirt also implies that BBC is failing to see all of the interest in their content as a business opportunity.  This is less legitimate.  BBC clearly sees this, and thus the entire goal of BBC Worldwide (who make the content available in a number of formats and have been reasonably aggressive in shortening international delay windows).

The issue is that providing free access to BBC content to non-UK citizens basically allows them to free ride.  UK citizens have paid for the content, others have not.  BBC has a right to monetize their content internationally so as to offset the tax burden on UK citizens in producing the content.

If the argument is that there is a more effective or elegant way to do this than blocking access through VPN’s, I’m all ears and I’m interested – I am no technical expert.  If the argument is that BBC should allow free access to their content to non-UK citizens, I have to disagree.

The overarching point is that geographic restrictions have been one way that companies have either price discriminated or found ways to monetize content by licensing rights to distributors on a country-by-country basis.  In a world where VPN’s are increasingly desirable (for a number of reasons), geographic restrictions will be harder to enforce.  I’m curious if there is a known technical solution to this problem yet.

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