A study carried out into the use of VPNs has suggested that more and more of us are masking our location when online.
For suppliers of streamable online content, this might at first glance appear to be a problem. If so, why isn’t anything being done to stop it?
What are VPNs?
Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs to me and you, allow the extension of private networks across to public networks (i.e. the internet). So, data can be exchanged across a public network, but all the security and management benefits of private networks remain intact.
VPNs provide a number of advantages. For business, it allows employees to gain access to work resources from outside the relevant network. For the security-conscious, it keeps communications secure and encrypted (possibly when using Public Wi-Fi). For the purposes of streaming, VPNs can mask the user’s location, allowing them to access content that is geographically restricted.
Usage on the Rise
Previously, it was assumed that VPNs were used exclusively by the tech-savy minority. GlobalWebIndex, who carried out the study, first confirmed this and then proceeded to disprove it. They claim that around 25% of all internet users worldwide are now active users of VPNs. After carrying out research on 45,000 users across 34 countries (including China, the US, India and many European countries), the results claim that 65 million people are regularly accessing the BBC iPlayer catch-up service whilst using VPNs from abroad.
For the BBC at least, this remains a problem. Funded by UK residents via the TV licence, those who access the iPlayer from abroad, of which over 38 million are believed to be in China, are enjoying publically funded content absolutely free of charge. Until recently, visitors to the BBC iPlayer from outside the UK were only allowed to access content if they paid a subscription fee of €6.99 a month. The growth in the use of VPNs meant that the Beeb was losing out on millions in potential revenue, and eventually the service was closed in June of this year.
Why Netflix don’t Care
Whilst VPNs remain a real issue for the BBC, subscription-based streaming services can take an altogether more positive outlook. Sure, many of those users who are accessing iPlayer are using VPNs for Netflix and other subscription services too. It adds an extra layer of value to an already excellent product. Crucially however, each and every Netflix subscriber is a paying customer (after any free trials of course), no matter what country they stream from.
There has been some pressure from content creators to introduce punishments for VPN users. After all, contracts are signed for films and TV shows to only be made available by certain providers in certain regions. Understandably, services like Netflix have largely ignored any concerns surrounding the use of VPNs, and rightfully so. A sure-fire way to a failing business model is punishing paying customers for exploiting a grey area. The debate rages over whether using VPNs to access blocked content is technically an infringement of copyright, with Australia currently considering new legislation to block their use.
To most streaming services then, VPNs barely register as a problem. If anything, they’re a good thing. Aside from providing the user with a greater variety of content, it also brings in new customers. Users in countries such as Iceland, where Netflix is not currently available, can use VPNs to sign up to the service.
A small, tokenistic effort has been made from Netflix in an attempt to please the VPN nay-sayers. They reserve the right to locate where your account is held and whether you’re connecting via a VPN provider. It Netflix catch wind of your use of VPNs to access geographically restricted content, they threaten to terminate your subscription.
However, as mentioned above, users of VPNs can remain calm for the moment. As a paying customer, Netflix and co are unlikely to actively pursue the termination of your contract, and their new policy is no more than a token effort to please those who are unhappy at the existence of VPNs.
Time for a new BBC?
Shifting back to the BBC, the figures released could offer valuable insight into our national broadcaster’s future. Of the 65 million using the VPN loophole to access BBC content from abroad, 75% are already active subscribers to paid services such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Video. The BBC is a globally respected brand and provider of great televisual content. In a political climate that currently hangs serious questions over the current method for funding the BBC, might a move to a subscription-based model be more fruitful?
The BBC still holds significant global appeal, and people in the UK are increasingly angered by the aging method of funding the corporation. VPNs may well have given the Beeb an opportunity to adopt a fresh, modern approach to how we access its content.