For years now, literally millions of people have been sidestepping the region locks of one of the world’s most popular websites – the BBC. The UK national broadcaster is one of the forerunner of streaming online videos with it’s BBC iPlayer application. However this is technically only accessible if you’re based in the UK, otherwise you can’t use it.
The technology is called region locking and is used now by pretty much every media site on the web. The idea is that each web site determines your location based on your IP address and the country it is registered to. So for example if you connect to the CNN or ABC web site, you will only have full access if you’re physically located in the United States.
However by bouncing your internet connection off an intermediary server based in the specific country you can bypass these blocks. So for example if you were in Spain and connected through to a UK server like this, you’d be able to watch the BBC iPlayer without restriction. In years gone by these servers could have been either proxies or VPN servers, although in latter years proxy servers have been blocked by most media sites automatically.
The VPN is a virtual private network and is almost impossible to detect so these are used extensively around the world to bypass all sorts of blocks and filters. In fact even the Chinese cannot reliably block all the VPN connections used by the Chinese to access censored sites through the Great firewall of China.
The BBC have always been fairly relaxed about these connections, possibly because they are in charge of all their own content and are perhaps less profit motivated. However in the last year or so, even the BBC have started to take action against VPN access. You can read about how they are blocking access to VPNs in this blog post. This move has hit millions of people very hard ranging from expats or anglophiles who enjoy watching BBC and all the channels available from abroad on the BBC iPlayer.
In reality, it’s likely that these restrictions are fairly temporary. It is true that the majority of VPN services no longer work with the BBC iPlayer however there are still a few that do. These are the companies who have developed a large infrastructure and have removed the typical ‘VPN footprints’ that are used to detect incoming connections from these servers. Other companies are developing other strategies for blocking VPN servers including restricting based on IP address classification.
It is sad to see the growth of all the blocks, filters and censorship spreading across the internet. Some of it is due to profit maxmisation however increasingly this is related to political and religious control too. It is important that we have a thriving and sophisticated VPN market which is currently our only way to take control of what we can access online. Hopefully public corporations will develop different models which will allow some sort of legitimate access to the world.