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Technology hero
27 April 2014

Getting inside the walls

Geoblocks are a type of technological protection measure that stops you from accessing media unless you are from the correct country.

Last week’s column couldn’t be posted after our blog host provider unexpectedly went down, which means you were spared a lengthy and grumpy article about spoilers. So instead I’m going to talk about getting around those pesky “geoblocks”.

(Note: I have seen some criticism of these columns that I haven’t covered the perspective of how the current model works for TV providers. I have promised that I will cover this before the series is over.)

First I’ll clear up some of this jargon. Geoblocks are a type of Technological Protection Measure (TPM) that stops you from accessing media unless you are from the correct country. This covers things like DVD/Blu-Ray region codes (zone 1 discs work only in the US etc). Online they are mostly seen on sites like YouTube: “The user has not made this video available in your country.”

These geoblock restrictions are what keep us from getting to Netflix, Hulu, and other online content providers. However, New Zealand law allows us to get around geoblocks completely legally.

“The use of devices allowing the circumvention of devices that merely control the access, such as regional zone access protection, [does] not infringe the TPM provisions.” Which is a longwinded way of saying: if something blocks you because you’re from New Zealand, then you are allowed to get around it. It’s the reason why we have multi-zone DVD players. As long as what you’re accessing is a legitimate copy then you’re allowed to do it.

This is why so many New Zealanders have Netflix accounts, and it’s not hard to set-up.

Last year I wrote a digital living guide that included instructions on how to set up a service called Unblock-US. When you access a website, the site will ask your computer where it’s from, when your computer responds with “New Zealand” the site can then stop you from getting to certain content. What Unblock-US does is essentially let your computer pretend it’s actually from the US, or the UK or wherever it needs to be from to get at the content.

Services like Unblock-US, (Smart DNS services, similar to a virtual private network or VPN) take care to work for specific sites only rather than a blanket approach. This means you can still get to sites that require you to be from New Zealand. You can also set up the service on individual devices/computers or on your router. The best thing is that it isn’t hard to do at all.

The service isn’t free of course. You’ll pay roughly USD5/month for the VPN and then whatever service subscriptions you want on top of that. Both Netflix and Hulu Plus cost USD8/month for a subscription. (Hulu is a free streaming TV service in the US, Hulu Plus is the paid version.)

While this is a legal way to get your content, you will be breaching the terms and conditions of the sites you’re accessing. These sites are providing the content on strict licenses from the content owners (ie the movie and TV studios); by gaining access you are breaking these license agreements. Broadcasters in places like New Zealand get rather grumpy about this as they have paid lots of money to get the exclusive licenses for this region.

That's why Netflix and Hulu have recently flexed their muscles and started blocking the locations that VPNs are using to access those sites. It’s a virtual game of “whack-a-mole” though and the VPNs will set up new locations and pretty soon they’ll be working again.

I don’t want to sweep the issues with content licensing under the rug and how the large sums of money, paid by broadcasters like Sky, allow shows like Game of Thrones to be made. But there are good reasons why people go to lengths to access these services and, next week, I want to explore these.

And for those readers who have criticised these posts for not covering how the current business model works for TV providers, I promise to cover that this before the series is over.

About the author:

Hadyn Green is a geek. He loves shiny new tech and the chance to try to break it. Because it's the kind of thing people ask, here is the tech Hadyn currently uses. Phone: iPhone 5s Tablet: iPad Air. Music player: Spotify. Headphones: Sony MDR-G55 (for walking because I hate earbuds) and Beats Studio noise-cancelling (for sitting at my desk and tuning out the world). E-Reader: Kindle Touch. Gaming: PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360. Internet Service Provider: Snap.

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