BBC Blocks VPN Access To Its On-Demand Service, Even From UK

from the bad-for-everyone dept

The BBC is a rather odd organization. Unlike commercial broadcasters, or those given money directly by national governments, it is mainly funded by a public licensing fee that must be paid by anyone in the UK who watches or records TV programs in real time, using:

TVs, computers, mobile phones, games consoles, digital boxes and DVD/VHS recorders.

To justify the ?145 (about $220) annual fee, the BBC takes the line that many of the programs available through its iPlayer service are only available to UK viewers. Of course, that’s easy to circumvent using a VPN that allows those outside the UK to access content as if they were in the country. The BBC has finally woken up to this fact, and drawn exactly the wrong conclusion about what it should do, as TorrentFreak (TF) reports:

Over the past several days TF has received several reports from VPN users who can no longer access iPlayer from UK-based VPN servers.

“BBC iPlayer TV programmes are available to play in the UK only,” is the notice they receive instead.

Instead of gracefully accepting the reality that geoblocking makes no sense in a world where VPNs allow users to appear to be more or less wherever they wish, the BBC has decided to try to block such access, including VPNs used by UK license-payers:

The BBC informs TF that the VPN ban was implemented to keep iPlayer ‘pirates’ at bay. The company is doing its best to keep company and school VPNs [in the UK] open but advises regular users to disconnect their VPN service in advance if they want to access iPlayer.

In our post-Snowden world, where the use of a VPN is becoming ever-more prudent, the BBC has just provided a strong disincentive for doing so in the UK. That’s really shabby treatment for BBC license-payers, who ought to be allowed to access content in a secure manner. It’s also bad news for everyone online, since the more widely VPNs are deployed, the less using one marks you out for special attention by government intelligence agencies. What the BBC should have done here is see the desire of people outside the UK to view its programs as a great opportunity to meet an evident need — and to generate extra income.

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Comments on “BBC Blocks VPN Access To Its On-Demand Service, Even From UK”

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43 Comments
Jake says:

What the BBC should have done here is see the desire of people outside the UK to view its programs as a great opportunity to meet an evident need — and to generate extra income.

I’m not conversant with the fine print of the BBC charter, but I suspect they may not actually be allowed to do that, at least without jumping through a lot of legal hoops first; the license fee, for example, is something they’re stuck with even though it’s getting more and more obsolete -and less and less enforceable- because the government has to sign off on alterations to their charter. (I think an actual Act of Parliament is involved, which in the present political climate would be a hard sell.)

BBC America and/or BBC Worldwide have more leeway because they’re legally separate but wholly-owned subsidaries, and I heard on the news a while back that they were going to start offering streaming themselves. That probably means overseas viewers will have to look elsewhere for the endless Family Guy repeats BBC 3 is inexplicably obsessed with, but them’s the breaks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Plus, any licensed music was licensed for that one territory. Expanding that to be global would have been very difficult. Right now, it probably isn’t worth it for the BBC to sort out which programs cannot be viewed outside of the UK and which can.

Contracts with actors and other people involved in the production of BBC content may contain language limiting distribution to UK viewers.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“That probably means overseas viewers will have to look elsewhere for the endless Family Guy repeats BBC 3 is inexplicably obsessed with”

Ironically, Family Guy is one of the programs they can never offer on iPlayer due to licencing. I like vegging out to an hour of FG before bed sometimes when I’m in the UK, but it’s the original content the channel produces that’s going to be missed here, not the international content legally available from another 100 places.

You are, however, correct about the restrictions on the BBC. Sometimes those restrictions work to the benefit of the BBC and its audience. Sometimes, it really doesn’t. Here, it’s mainly those restrictions that are stopping them from simply offering services in a way acceptable to all so it’s not the same as mocking Hulu and Sony for failing to it.

marek says:

Jake is right. The BBC is very heavily constrained in what it is allowed to do, which is why iPlayer has always had some irritating limitations. They are required to restrict availability to licence fee payers as far as possible, partly to avoid accusations of unfair competition from other providers and partly for copyright reasons. The absurdities of regional licensing in a digital age are absurd, of course, but they are not an absurdity of the BBC’s making, and it’s unfair to blame them for having to deal with the consequences.

Dingledore the Flabberghaster says:

Re: And also....

The BBC itself is making fewer and fewer programmes in-house, and, instead, is commissioning programmes from independent production houses. Those contracts would need revisiting. The very big BBC productions tend to be joint ventures these days and are already out on BBC worldwide or the partner network – e.g. Orphan Black.

Anonymous Howard says:

Re: Re: Re: Customers

Even if you have no means of watching live TV, the BBC contracts the profit-making organisation Capita to administer TV licensing, who in turn send ‘threat-o-gram’ letters on an approximately monthly basis warning of investigations, what to expect in court, ten days to buy a license, blah-de-blah.

They will also send round hired goons who, despite Capita claiming that their officers will identify themselves, try to avoid letting you know who they are. Instead, they will merely ask to speak to ‘the homeowner’, or they will say that ‘I’d like to ask you a few questions’. In the latter case they may be holding a clipboard (this is just a prop, they all have PDAs to record information) to trick you into thinking that it’s a survey.

You can write to them to tell them you have no TV, but it’s pointless, they will continue to harass you.

Anonymous Coward says:

apart from the fact that the BBC is run by a load of total idiots, it has never had the respect that it should show to consumers of the UK. on top of this, i read where the BBC is in a bit of a pickle and could be losing it’s funding, so perhaps this is it’s stupid way of getting it’s own back BEFORE the funding decision is made!
like stated though, the UK is doing anything it can dream up to screw internet users while pleasing as many members as it can belonging to the Entertainment Industries. i dont know how true, but read where those industries had provided funding to that Government. something else that’s happening is the blocking of many tens more websites without any mentioning at all of if a court case has been held or whether those running the sites had been contacted and been able to defend themselves. as is usual for that government, they just take the word of whichever section of the Entertainment Industries making complaints at the time. not a bad bout of democracy, is it!!! taken lessons from Hollywood and the Obama govt.!

Rekrul says:

Back in 2010, the BBC put out a series of four short Doctor Who games, which could be downloaded for free from the BBC web site. Unfortunately, they had an online check that only worked if you were using a UK ISP.

They were given away for free, but there are many fans in other parts of the world who would have gladly paid a reasonable fee for them.

Unfortunately as far as I know, they were never offered anywhere else. You can download them from sites like The Pirate Bay, but they’re not cracked and only work in the UK. To get them to work elsewhere you need to edit your Hosts file to point to your system, add a specific text file in a specific directory and possibly run a small web server, so that trying to access the verification URL will actually read the contents of the file on your system.

Of course this is completely beyond the capabilities of 99.99% of users today, which means that almost nobody has played those games outside the UK.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

One of my regular go-to programs is QI, and it’s something I find myself putting on in the background quite often (I use YouTube).

Unfortunately, there’s no 100% effective way to get it in a way that allows the BBC to collect money. The show depends on photos, sound effects, etc., many of which are copyrighted. The copyright was only obtained for the UK initially, which has made it very difficult/expensive for international distribution. It screens regularly in some countries, but it’s hard to get a complete run even where it is available on streaming services.

But, even the UK doesn’t fare much better. Only a few seasons are available on Netflix. iPlayer only allows streaming of recently broadcast episodes and doesn’t offer a way to watch complete series. Only a handful of series have been released on DVD. Unless you have a stash of episodes that you happened to have recorded from a broadcast, you’re stuck with watching whatever episode Dave or the BBC happens to be choosing to broadcast at whatever time.

So, that leaves piracy in all its forms, from infringing uploads to YouTube (where most episodes are available, often with some trickery to bypass ContentID) to torrents to whatever.

As ever, the pirates get what they want but nobody else is happy. People trying to do the right thing get screwed, and the BBC are losing money. I can understand their desire to stop non-licence fee payers from watching on their platform, but it’s not going to stop people watching when they have no legal choice.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re:

If they made a deal with YouTube, where they already have some content up on their own channel, it could solve a lot of problems, including revenue ones.

They can and do sell merchandising, e.g. books about the series, etc., so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could slip in adverts for those on their page.

They could also offer the YT channel as a paid subscription service to overseas viewers, thereby drawing in a dual revenue stream from that plus merch. Simples!

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“they already have some content up on their own channel… They can and do sell merchandising”

Exactly. So, there’s usually some real reason why they don’t just do that with everything. This isn’t a case of “company tries suing people to support a dying business model”, it’s a lot more complicated, and pretty unique. Left to their own devices, the BBC have consistently shown themselves to be forward-thinking and net savvy.

“it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could slip in adverts for those on their page.”

Part of the licencing rules prohibits advertising, certainly on their own TV and radio stations, to the point where many live broadcasters are prohibited from mentioning brand names. It’s likely that this is literally not an option.

“They could also offer the YT channel as a paid subscription service to overseas viewers”

Erm, that’s not how YouTube works, at all…

art guerrilla (profile) says:

stupid tech question about vpns

just throwing it out to see if it could save me (and others) a bunch of googling:
does a VPN have any influence or deleterious issues with having to also use a service like no-ip to generate a static IP address to be used with web controled security cameras, etc ? ? ?
obvious i don’t know about the technical aspects, just know i need the no-ip svc to make my web-based stuff accessible, and didn’t know how a VPN has any significant interaction with that layer of re-direction as well…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: stupid tech question about vpns

A static IP/ no-ip service is only required to receive a connection request, but not when originating a connection request. The IP address you are using at the time of originating a connection, which include to a VPN, is passed along as part of the connection request. It works like phone numbers, if you know the number you can ring the person, with DNS and no-ip services acting as the phone book.
Think of a VPN as being a remote NAT router at the other end of a (usually) encrypted connection.

Anonymous Coward says:

The BBC is f—–g bats–t out-of-their-skulls crazy, which is business as usual for them these days. Note that for years they promised to make iPlayer subscriptions available in the U.S. but this never materialized and they stopped mentioning it. Why? Because they were blackmailed into dropping it by the U.S. mega cable providers.

The Beeb produces endless very high-quality documentaries, which they then lock up in their vaults and block access to, totally insane.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Erm… what? The BBC are crazy, and the reason is because US corporations blocked them from offering a service they wished to offer? You might have your blame displaced somewhat.

“Note that for years they promised to make iPlayer subscriptions available in the U.S. but this never materialized and they stopped mentioning it”

Not strictly true. They are promising another service, they obviously just need to come up with one that doesn’t get them blocked by American interests again – http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-34289852

I understand the sentiment, but try getting your facts right before attacking people. If you know that the cable companies are to blame, why are you attacking the BBC?

“The Beeb produces endless very high-quality documentaries, which they then lock up in their vaults and block access to, totally insane.”

Such as? Lots of nature documentaries, for example, seem to be available on Netflix from what I can see.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The current government in the UK is a conservative one and because “reality has a liberal bias” —as has often been pointed out— they tend to rather despise the BBC’s coverage of their rampantly anti-citizen agenda.
This means that while the BBC should have been allowed to change its funding methods years ago to allow it to take on out-of-UK subscribers, it isn’t allowed to, because the government is trying to strangle it.

Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously says:

It would be understandable if the BBC simply said it cannot afford the bandwidth-cost of serving non-UK users. After all, they are being paid to provide to UK residents only.
Off course the better option would be to set up another subsidiary specifically for non-UK streaming, either using paid subscriptions or adds/sponsoring to pay for the costs of streaming/CDN.
It would probably pay for itself without too much effort.

ecadre says:

Re: Re:

Sorry, but this would simply ber illegal. ie. it would break the terms of the BBC’s Royal Charter.

If the BBC set up a subsidiary (actually it does this already), then it must take BBC content at commercial rates.

It cannot be subsidised in any way, it cannot take time to become “viable” and be subsidised by the BBC, it cannot be given free or cheap programming content. It also cannot use the UK BBC’s infrastructure.

The only thing that the BBC itself is allowed to do is to provide “free to air” programming to the UK, funded by the licence fee.

The BBC does actually have companies that it owns internationally. They are not allowed to provide a service in the UK, and are wholly commercial, ie. are not supported by licence fee money in any way.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I believe you’re thinking of the wrong level. They won’t be blocking specific routes or connections, they’ll just be blocking any traffic routed through a VPN.

That is, for OpenVPN they’ll be blocking port 1194 and/or using a VPN protocol. That’s why they’re blocking UK-based VPNs as well. If they were filtering specific routes, they’re be able to avoid blocking VPN traffic from people who have paid for the service, so to speak.

Nicole (profile) says:

BBC Can't Get Geolocation Right

Oh that they managed geolocation as suggested here. For nearly a year I was blocked from the iPlayer as “not being in the UK”. I told them I used a UK ISP and lived in Yorkshire. Their reply was “iPlayer was only available to those living in the UK”. You cannot get past the script-droids who answer e-mails to actually communicate with someone who has a clue. The BBC belongs to us all and it angers me that are so incompetent.

Psycho says:

Another Hurdle To Jump

Well, I seem to remember reports some years ago that we wouldn’t be able to use torrent services sometime down the track and these still exist. For now, I’m still able to access the BBC content from Australia and I’m sure that most VPN providers will circumvent ways around this technology given time. Just another stupid technological hurdle for people to jump, but I’m sure the leap will occur and the BBC will undoubtedly ensure that people are kept employed in their efforts to block people on their end. I guess it’s one way of lowering the job crisis in the UK.

ecadre says:

The BBC Royal Charter

The BBC is not allowed to make its licence fee paid content availible to anyone outside the UK.

This has got nothing to do with “regional licensing”, “copyright”, “distribution deals”, “US cable comapnies” etc.

It is in the terms of the Charter under which the BBC operate. This is also true of their “free to air” services (apart from the BBC World Service which is now licence fee supported but was until recently funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK government).

The BBC’s international operations are undertaken by subsidiary companies (usually wholly owned, but not all of them).

Licence payer’s money is not allowed to be spent on these operations. Full stop. It is forbidden. For instance, the BBC content on “BBC America” is either paid for at commercial rates from the BBC or elsewhere, or created in-house by “BBC America”. The BBC is not allowed to subsidise these services with licence fee money in any way shape or form.

There are all sorts of problems down at the BBC. The continuing cuts, out sourcing, closing facilities, deals with contenting licensing etc … but these have nothing to do with this case.

The “British Broadcasting Corporation” has a Royal Charter to create radio, TV and “digital” programming for the UK, not the world.

Now, you may have a problem with that, but here’s a thought for you. You may think the the BBC should pay for all that bandwidth and infrastructure to service the whole world for free with programming paid for by British licence payers … but, we have the choice not to.

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