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If media companies do block VPN sites, you can build your own Personal Cloud VPN

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Battle of the VPN

The battle of largely US-based media companies against Australian consumers has turned temporarily from concern about illegal downloads, to Australians circumventing geographic streaming restrictions. Leaked documents from Sony Pictures, recently posted on Wikileaks, reveal that Sony demanded that Netflix do more to stop VPN users from countries like Australia accessing their services. Prior to their official launch in Australia this year, Netflix was estimated to have had around 200,000 Australian subscribers, all using VPNs.

Netflix has so far successfully resisted pressure to implement so-called geo-blocks that would prevent Australians (and others) from accessing US content. They have argued that it would inconvenience their “legitimate” customers and also will be unnecessary once they have completed their global roll-out of their service. Once they have finished the roll-out, Netflix would be increasingly seeking global licenses for their content to avoid any geographic differences in their service.

Will companies tackle VPN through Copyright law?

The lobbying of the media companies like Sony has not stopped there however. Pressure has been exerted on governments in a number of countries to tighten copyright legislation. Recent articles in the Australian press have suggested that legislation to amend the Copyright Act in Australian will leave the door open for media companies to seek the blocking of VPN services.

The problem with the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015, is that it uses ambiguous language that is open to interpretation. In particular, it states that injunctions may be sought against online locations where “the primary purpose of the online location is to infringe, or to facilitate the infringement of, copyright”.

Organisations such as the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, have interpreted this as potentially meaning that ISPs could be forced to block sites that provide VPN access to consumers. Unfortunately, the media has taken this one step further by suggesting that VPN technology itself could somehow be banned.

Are VPNs legal?

Confusing the technology of VPNs with sites that provide access to VPN servers has only fuelled speculation and concern about what media companies will or won’t be able to do.

The Australian Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, has stated that the use of VPN technology by Australians to circumvent geo-blocking in the US, is not illegal under the Copyright Act. This is somewhat at odds however with the view of the Australian Copyright Council who state that they believe it is “likely” to be illegal. The reason for the ACC’s view is that they see geo-blocking as a form of copyright technological protection mechanism. If that was the case, then circumventing them with a VPN could be considered illegal under the terms of the Copyright Act.

The concern for many is that if the Australian Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 is passed as is, the courts will be left to determine whether VPN services indeed “facilitate the infringement of copyright”.

As other commentators have pointed out however, in practice, chasing down VPN service providers will be like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Blocking access to websites will do nothing to stop people who have already got access to VPNs through that service. Also, attempts to block access can easily be circumvented using proxy services and other work-arounds.

Build your own Personal Cloud VPN

Possibly posing even more of a challenge to media companies wishing to shut down VPN use to circumvent geo-blocking is the ability of consumers to build their own personal cloud VPN service. This has become a real possibility thanks to cloud services from companies like Amazon, and open source software such as SoftEther VPN from the University of Tsukuba, Japan.

The first step involves creating a server on Amazon’s cloud service AWS. This can be done for free for a year although data costs will kick in past the first 15 GB. The server can be run in a number of different locations but for the purposes of accessing US services, one of three US locations can be chosen. Installing the SoftEther VPN software requires following relatively simple instructions but getting a neighbourhood techie to do it for you would be better. Once done, connecting to the VPN from a laptop is as easy as putting in the address of the server and entering the username and password created during the installation of the VPN software.

The whole process of setting up a personal VPN takes about 30 minutes (the time it took the author researching this article). This would be slightly longer if setting up accounts on Amazon for the first time. Setting up a VPN this way has the added advantage that it is very unlikely to be blocked by services like Hulu for example because they are only looking for known VPN service provider Internet addresses.

Hopefully one day, taking such steps will be unnecessary and media companies will move to operating on an equal global basis. Until that time however, there are means of levelling the playing field.

The EC’s case against Google is a bad application of outdated laws

Outdated law

On one level, the European Commission’s argument with Google is unsurprising. The EC’s commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager’s job is to investigate possible breaches of EU competition law. That is exactly what she is doing with her official complaints against Google’s use of its Google Shopping service. Equally unsurprising, is the investigation of Google’s other possible breaches of its monopoly position with how it controls the use of its mobile operating system, Android.

One should also set aside the melodrama that accompanies such cases. News reports of the case have highlighted calls for the break up of Google as suggested by the European Parliament last year. The reports have also focused on the possible massive Euro 6 billion fine Google faces if the antitrust complaints are upheld. Finally, there is the fact that the case is the result of a conspiracy of competitors, led by Microsoft.

All of the drama however, masks what is going to be a protracted process that could take years, during which time the entire landscape that is being fought over could have changed, not once, but several times. Google themselves were at pains to respond to the accusations that they were harming consumers by pointing out that search was quickly being superseded, and that:

“People are increasingly using social sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter to find recommendations, such as where to eat, which movies to watch or how to decorate their homes”

Whilst it may be true that Google has a monopoly on search of the Internet as a whole, that is certainly not the case when it comes to the “social web” which is well and truly dominated by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others. Likewise, Google may have dominated advertising on the desktop but that is increasingly not the case on mobile.

Law and trade policy operate on timescales that are always going to significantly lag technological change. As if understanding the full impact of an existing technology on consumers and competition was already not challenging enough, attempting to do this in the context of what will happen in even a few years is almost impossible. In fact, even determining monopoly in a technological market is not always straightforward. For example, even though Android controls over 80% of the world’s smartphone market compared to Apple’s share of 15%, in terms of mobile e-commerce, users of Apple’s mobile devices account for 5 times the value of Android users.

For all of the EC’s past actions against Microsoft, they were irrelevant in shaping what eventually happened in the market. The actions had no effect on Microsoft’s behaviours, and came as little-to-no benefit to consumers. As with the EC’s complaint against Android, the fact that software comes pre-installed does nothing to preclude a consumer’s ability to run alternative software.

The EC’s objections against Google again raises the more general issue that it is a futile exercise to use antitrust law to retrospectively try and influence the way the technology companies, and the digital economy as a whole, work. As with copyright and patents, the law has simply not been able to adapt and keep pace with the disruptive change brought about by technology and society at a global scale. It has led policy and law makers, and companies not wanting to adapt to change, to focus on the past and act as a break, rather than an enabler, of progress.

It would be a far better use of the EC’s time and resources if their energies were spent creating policy that enabled the digital economy that they profess to want rather than keeping their vision of it restricted to a time that has long since passed.

Unfazed by court cases, downloaders continue, but turn to hiding their tracks

Pirates Continue

The assault on illegal downloaders by the movie industry last week was put forward as a form of making a highly visible example of a few individuals in an attempt to change public behaviour. Sadly for the likes of Voltage Pictures, it doesn’t seem to have worked. Four episodes of the fifth season of Game of Thrones were leaked onto the Internet and have been downloaded millions of times. Countries in which downloaders have previously been targeted by Voltage Pictures, and others, were in the top 10 of downloading countries, namely, the US, Canada, and Australia.

Australian TorGuard Traffic

At the same time, the top 10 most downloaded movies this week featured Furious 7 at number 1. That film has made a $610 million in profit so far. If illegal downloading is making a dent in the sales of this movie, it would be hard to tell.

What has happened as a result of the Dallas Buyers Club LLC court action against ISPs in Australia has been a substantial increase in the use of VPN technology in Australia to hide the user’s IP address that could identify them in any future legal action.

This is exceptionally good news for the VPN providers and not so good news for people wanting to target downloaders, or indeed for the Government.

In a recent survey, 16% of Australians surveyed had used a VPN to protect their privacy. This would have increased significantly after that point as one VPN provider, TorGuard showed a large spike in usage from Australia immediately after the Dallas Buyers Club LLC court case judgement was announced.

Using a VPN protects users who are downloading because their Internet address appears as if it belongs to a service in another country. A movie company wanting to track down the owner of the IP address would find the VPN company. VPN companies have so far resisted giving up customer names and limit the time that they keep access logs for. Any content owner seeking information from a VPN provider would have to go through a significant number of hurdles to get access to the person using the service. Finally, the VPN company is likely to be based in a different country to the servers that are being used and even to the customer themselves, creating further legal hurdles.

The use of VPN software has a couple of other benefits for the consumer. Most of the VPN providers will allow their customers the ability to choose which country they connect with. This means that a vpn user can get around “geo-blocking that prevents non-US users from accessing services like HBO Now and the US Netflix.

Theoretically, Australians would have been able to sign up for a free trial month of HBO Now through Apple iTunes and watch Game of Thrones relatively easily. The other side effect of the increased use in VPN technology is that its use makes the Australian Government’s data retention bill less useful as the only bit of metadata the ISP will see is that a VPN connection was made to a provider. Everything that happens after that point will be hidden from the ISP.

It could be argued that this is actually a relatively good thing from an individual’s privacy perspective and may actually make people more aware generally of security issues on the Internet.

From the ISP’s perspective, the use of VPNs by their customers is not necessarily a bad thing because it would reduce the information that they are required to keep and reduce the chance that they will be dragged to court each time a copyright owner wants to pursue infringers.

The response by downloaders to move behind the protection of VPNs was a reasonably predictable response and it seemed at best, naive of companies to believe, that when faced with millions of downloaders, sending letters to even several thousand people would have any effect on the behaviour of the group as a whole. The other mistake that people have made is to treat downloaders as a homogeneous group. There are a range of reasons why people download and these different motivations will come with different levels of determination to carry on despite the risks.