From the latest must watch box sets to thrilling coverage of sports events, there’s a wealth of high quality video content now available online, and viewers will go to great lengths to get it – even if that means resorting to illegitimate circumvention tactics to bypass regional restrictions.
The use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or proxy servers to access blocked content – either because viewers don’t want to pay for access or because content is simply not available in their region – is increasing. A VPN gives the user a different virtual location from their physical location, potentially allowing them to access previously geo-blocked content.
So, what will be the impact of illicit VPN use on broadcasters in 2018 and how can they tackle this growing issue?
The cost of circumvention
Recent YouGov research reveals 16% of British adults have used a VPN or proxy server and almost half (48%) of these have done so to get region-based access to content that would otherwise be blocked to them. But with use of VPNs in the UK relatively low compared with Asian and Middle Eastern countries, the global circumvention situation may be far more extensive, and as much as 25% of Internet users are thought to use VPNs worldwide.
Broadcasters pay significant fees for the rights to distribute content, and different networks often hold the rights to the same content in different countries. For instance, Sky holds the rights to broadcast Formula One in the UK while ESPN holds them in the U.S. Equally, Netflix only has the rights to show House of Cards in the US and UK, not in countries such as Hong Kong where the rights have been sold to other platforms. Broadcasters recoup licensing fees and generate revenues through subscriptions, but if users can access the content for free from another provider by using VPNs and appear as though they are located in a different country, broadcasters lose out on essential revenues.
Broadcasters aren’t the only ones to be affected. If viewers aren’t paying for the content they watch, its value will be diluted and licensing fees will reduce; effectively penalising the content producers. This will ultimately create a vicious cycle where content providers are unable to afford to produce quality programming and even fewer viewers are inclined to pay for its access.
The complexity of circumvention prevention
Unfortunately, circumvention prevention is not as simple as detecting when a viewer is using a VPN and blocking access to content, as users often employ these networks for perfectly legitimate reasons. The YouGov research reveals 44% of VPN users in the UK use the networks for extra security, and also identified other genuine reasons for using VPNs such as reducing personalised ads and spam.
Broadcasters must be careful not to block users from accessing content they are legitimately entitled to, and may well have paid for, just because they are using a VPN or proxy network. This would be highly damaging to the user experience and could be enough to convince a viewer to switch to another content platform, especially with so many specialist streaming services continually emerging and competing with each other.
The solution to circumvention
Fortunately, there are ways to detect and prevent circumvention without impacting genuine users. Technologies such as IP geolocation can be used to pinpoint a user’s specific location and whether they are where they say they are, without them becoming personally identifiable. These highly accurate technologies can further help to differentiate between innocent use, such as a corporate VPN set up for security, and dishonest activities such circumvention.
Crucially, because these technologies do not identify the individual, they do not require opt-in from the user, allowing broadcasters to protect themselves without breaching consumer privacy or hindering the user experience. That said, employing these technologies does require knowledge and experience to avoid sweeping classifications that create false positives, harm genuine users, and risk customer loyalty.
Tackling circumvention will be a high priority for broadcasters this year and as users find ever-more sophisticated ways to access geo-blocked content they will need to remain one step ahead of the game. But by applying innovative technologies with a high degree of precision and experience, broadcasters can clamp down on circumvention and protect their revenues – without harming the customer experience.