Geoblocking: What it is and why it’s bollocks

Nick Smit determines why media isn’t meeting our demand for on-demand.

I had originally planned for my next article to be a review of Fire Emblem: Fates, due to be released on the 19th of Febuary in the US, but my local distributors can currently only guess at a June release in Australia. It’s a similar tune to the one playing on Netflix, in which rough estimates compare US and AU libraries of 7000 and 1100 titles respectively. This conversion comes at the loss of greats past and present like Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad, but it’s more than a conspiracy to erase Bryan Cranston from the Aussie mediascape; it’s a phenomenon called geoblocking.

But what is geoblocking and why is it happening in the first place? Geoblocking itself is the practise of restricting access to online resources based on a user’s geographic location, using information like your IP address. It’s essentially the online variant of older distribution strategies like region-locking, the reason your DVD player can’t play foreign movies and the like, and even older ideas from the age of “shipping” when new media products needed to be physically transported from country to country.

Geoblocking’s roots actually do a pretty good job of explain why it exists, as it mostly seems to be the result of an old habit media just can’t kick. Distributing a product overseas used to require a massive investment that meant only the biggest hits would make the voyage, and usually the company that took on the task would ask for sole distribution rights in return. But now that the internet lets us transmit data astoundingly effortlessly, apparently the industry didn’t get the memo.

Sole distribution rights are usually one of the largest contributing factors to why we can’t watch what we want when we want. A large swath of you might have immediately thought of Game of Thrones, the show with the dubious honour of being the most pirated TV series of all time. One of the most-cited reasons for the show’s high piracy rate other than its popularity is that the only legal way to see it on time is through Foxtel, the aging pay-tv service that bundles it with other shows so that it’s impossible to just pay for stoic north-men banging on about climate change. It’s a blow softened by the fact that Foxtel offers a ‘simulcast’ that airs at the same time as the US and that the show is eventually available on iTunes once each season has finished its airing, but it still can’t compete with the on-demand streaming access US viewers enjoy the instant it airs on HBO.

Even worse than inconvenient or slow is when a title doesn’t reach us at all, as had been the case for Attack on Titan until the physical DVDS became available for sale in Australia. Attack on Titan has been in licencing limbo since its original release, with localisation studios Madman and FUNimation bouncing it back and forth to no end. As a result, US viewers have been able to watch it for free on Crunchyroll from as early as 2013 and even knowing about the show before 2015 in Australia meant admitting to piracy or at very least using a VPN (or Virtual Private Network) to trick Crunchyroll into giving you the giant-slaying goods.

VPNs are also used to circumvent price discrimination, where products can be sold for wildly different prices from region to region. The Australian video game market is an example of this gone haywire, where a $60 US title can go for $120 AU, which soars above the conversion rate. Another reason that VPNS have flourished is the instantaneous and global nature of the web. Geoblocked consumers are ever more vulnerable to spoilers or being left out of the conversation altogether as the internet is as fickle as it is fast. This is doubly so for media commentators and artists, who are struggling for relevancy on an international scale. And so VPN use appears necessary for many, and roughly 200,000 Australians concealing their IP address in order to pay for US Netflix indicates that it can often be done in good faith.

But media companies seem adamant about keeping us in our box even when we’re paying for content, as Netflix announced a crackdown on VPNs last year. The industry has even come up with a hip new strawman name to make VPN users sound all naughty:’geododgers’. No matter how unlikely a geoblocking campaign is to succeed against savvy users, the principle message behind it is clear: Australia will remain remote, even on the internet. It’s an artificial locality, no longer born of physical constraints but of big business’s pathological desire to double-dip. Bear in mind that there is no explicit legislation against VPNs in the US, Australia, Japan or the UK, and this smacks of that one time marketing agents managed to make getting hit by a car illegal.

So what can we do about it? Well, not a whole bloody lot, unfortunately. But the main two things are to talk about it, both with words and with money. If your current entertainment source isn’t giving you a fair shake, one of the most powerful statements you can make is to go somewhere else. In games, this could mean sites like GOG instead of Steam, which tries its darndest to secure global distribution rights and has a single global price for each title once the conversion rate is factored in. And of course, the next time Game of Thrones breaks its own piracy record you could always send someone to this article so we can talk about why it might be happening.

 

Image: Yuri Samoilov, Flickr, no changes made.

 

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