A sidestep to overseas TV shows

LEE SUCKLING
Last updated 10:20, February 4 2014
INDEMAND: Television shows such as Kevin Spacey's House of Cards appear on Netflix months before they screen in New Zealand.
Reuters

INDEMAND: Television shows such as Kevin Spacey's House of Cards appear on Netflix months before they screen in New Zealand.

Kiwis have often received the short stick on television entertainment.

Traditionally, we've received TV shows months - sometimes even more than a year - after they initially screened in the United States.

Largely, this occurs because of corporate deals that monopolise entertainment access, but New Zealanders are cottoning on to a new way of consuming entertainment.

RIGHT TO PRIVACY: Kevin Spacey plays corrupt Congressman Frank Underwood in Netflix's House of Cards.

RIGHT TO PRIVACY: Kevin Spacey plays corrupt Congressman Frank Underwood in Netflix's House of Cards.

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a way to bypass one's internet protocol (IP) address (the thing that reveals your physical location) so you can access websites that are geographically restricted. According to progressive internet service providers (ISPs), VPNs offer a way to pay for the content one might otherwise pirate.

"We don't condone piracy in any way," says Greg McAlister, the chief executive of Orcon. "We're supportive of VPNs because they allow people to pay for content."

McAlister is referring to US streaming services such as Netflix, which costs US$7.99 (NZ$9.70) per month for unlimited streaming from an expansive library of films and television shows.

Heralding a sort of "post- piracy" movement, VPNs offer unrestricted market access.

"Geographic entertainment boundaries were invented prior to the internet age," McAlister explains. "We've asked among industry experts, and as far as we can tell, VPNs are completely legal.

"The most important thing here is that the makers of the content are being paid for their product, because [Netflix is] paying them."

While VPN use may be a legal grey area in many countries, from an ethical standpoint, VPN use represents a generation that doesn't believe in geo-blocking. The internet, supposedly, exists to offer us open, unrestricted access to the rest of the world - even from a pair of tiny islands in the South Pacific.

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Moreover, outside of the First World, geo-blocking is how hard- line regimes stop their citizens participating in the international forum. Thus VPNs allow these citizens to access to online material we take for granted.

So, democratically, VPNs can serve a higher ethical purpose than allowing a New Zealander to watch the second season of House of Cards before its first season even reaches our networks. A key argument against VPN use is that in bypassing New Zealand content providers, users of VPNs aren't supporting local business.

Referencing the local media outlets that have exclusive deals with US television and film studios, McAlister says: "These guys basically have a monopoly on content - and can set the rules around when and how Kiwis get their entertainment. In no other competitive market would that happen."

Orcon represents a small group of New Zealand ISPs that endorse VPN use.

"The big industry players have vested interest in Sky, so they won't publicly support [VPNs]," McAlister says.

There will always be a role for both streaming content and pay TV, however.

"You won't see the All Blacks streaming, so for that I have Sky," McAlister adds. "But do I think paying $70 a month for that is crazy? Yes. It only costs me [US$7.99] for Netflix."

No data exists around VPN usage in New Zealand, but with the success of shows such as House of Cards, Kiwis are becoming increasingly aware of what they missed out on in 2013.

A simple solution would be for Netflix to enter the New Zealand market, though as it stands, the aforementioned exclusive media deals may prevent such market penetration.

Access to Netflix for Kiwis is quite a straight-forward process and doing a search online will bring up many how-to guides but basically all you need to do is set up a VPN, go to Netflix.com and get an account, then stream away on your computer.

In Australia, where Netflix is also unavailable, there's speculation that between 20,000 and 50,000 households subscribe to Netflix and access it via VPNs.

Little evidence confirms that VPN use breaches copyright law. While it is legal to use a VPN - they can also be used to avert hackers from online transactions, for example - it is against Netflix's terms and conditions to use its product if not a resident of the United States.

Netflix has not publicly commented on VPN use, conversely, as it is suspected that closing their international customer loophole would result in revenue losses in the millions of dollars.

Jeremy Johnson, a partner at law firm Wynn Williams who has experience in intellectual property disputes, says the use of VPNs is legally complicated because it stands at the intersection of domestic law, international law and technological advance.

"The IP [intellectual property] legislation is unclear as to whether using VPNs to access Netflix would constitute a breach of copyright by way of importation, but it is unlikely any civil or criminal liability would arise without a law change and it is difficult to see New Zealand needing to alter its laws to comply with the international IP conventions.

"The biggest legal risk consumers face is an accusation of breach of terms and then a blocking of access to services like Netflix."

WHAT IS A VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a mask that allows you to protect your IP address and appear as though you're accessing the web from a different location.

In very basic terms, a VPN allows you to change the address (made up of numbers) that an internet-connected device is allocated to, so the device tells outside sources it is at a different address (one where the content you want to access is available).

VPNs bypass internet censorship, so they're popular in countries such as China where Facebook is banned, and also make it much harder for hackers to steal your personal data.

A VPN doesn't redirect data; it just changes the information available to the source, so your internet speed is rarely affected.

 - © Fairfax NZ News

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