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Say Hola! to the newest route around web censorship

The ongoing copyright arms race between content owners and internet users has taken a new turn. Israeli firm Hola! has recently launched a suite of products that are variously designed to bypass geoblocking…

Hola! will increase Australia’s access to content, but is it legal? Movie reel image from from www.shutterstock.com

The ongoing copyright arms race between content owners and internet users has taken a new turn. Israeli firm Hola! has recently launched a suite of products that are variously designed to bypass geoblocking and accelerate internet-access speeds.

Hola! is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Derry Shribman and Ofer Vilenski. They have set out to fundamentally change the way the world wide web operates by creating software which makes the web more efficient and harder to censor.

Hola! is comprised of several products:

  • Browser extensions which work on Windows and Mac with Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. These plugins only bypass geoblocking.
  • Client software for Windows which functions as web accelerator, geoblock bypass, and censorship bypass service.
  • An Android app which operates as a web accelerator only.
Hola! bypasses restrictions on sites which are usually geoblocked. http://www.Hola.org

BBC iPlayer, Hulu, Netflix … and VPNs

Catchup TV and online movie services such as BBC iPlayer, Hulu, Netflix and many others use geoblocking – and so are not available from within Australia.

But circumvention of these geoblocks is commonplace with the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or proxy server. During the London Olympics the media was awash with stories of people using these methods to access the BBC’s online coverage of the Games.

These VPNs and proxy systems are either subscription services, or they operate on a freemium model where a limited or ad-supported version of the product or service is given away in the hope of selling consumers a “full” version of the product.

VPNs were designed as a way of securely connecting a remote computer to a corporate network, and using a VPN is a rather clumsy method to access multimedia content. All traffic is routed through the VPN which may limit access to other services, and the VPN needs to be connected and disconnected to various servers to access content in different countries.

Hola! is different

Not only is Hola! free, but it’s different to other services because it utilises peer-to-peer technology, where traffic is not re-routed through central servers but via other computers which have the Hola! Windows client installed.

This peer-to-peer nature will make it difficult for Hola! to be blocked in the same way Hulu has blocked some VPN and proxy services.

The Hola! browser extension is also by far the simplest and most elegant method to bypass geoblocks. The inflexibility and complications which come with setting up a VPN or altering rarely-changed DNS settings can limit the function of a computer for everyday use.

Once Hola! is installed, its function can be toggled from an icon in the browser.

Is Hola! legal?

Most people are familiar with technological protection measures (TPM) in the form of region coding on DVDs. Those TPMs try to prevent the disc being copied and try to prevent playback in a place other than the market in which the disc was sold.

Region coding allows Hollywood to segment global markets, releasing movies to one market at a time, maximising the effect of promotional campaigns, for instance.

Geoblocking is used by the entertainment industry to perpetuate this same market segmentation online - which includes Australians paying higher prices. For example, the American service Netflix at $US7.99/month compares poorly with local Quickflix at $A14.99/month.

Geoblocking is a technological protection measure but due to a special exemption in the definition of TPMs in the Copyright Act, it is not illegal to break TPMs that prevent the playback in Australia of a film obtained from outside Australia - so long as it is a non-infringing copy.

While using a region-free DVD player clearly falls within this exemption, bypassing geoblocks remains an untested grey area.

In August 2012, consumer advocacy group Choice highlighted this grey area in a submission to the Attorney General’s Review of Technical Protection Measure exceptions.

The grey area centres on whether video streaming can be considered a “non-infringing copy”. When users sign up to a service - let’s take Netflix as our example – they agree to Terms and Conditions that include a clause on geographic limitations:

Geographic Limitation: You may instantly watch a movie or TV show through the Netflix service only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such movie or TV show …

The interpretation of this clause of the Terms and Conditions, and the weight given to respecting these must be weighed against the intent of the exemptions in the Copyright Act.

This is critical in deciding whether or not accessing movie content from Australia will be defined as a “non-infringing copy”.

Facebook in China, Twitter in Tehran, YouTube in Pakistan … or Gmail at the office

Social media services are censored or completely blocked in many countries, and most large workplaces limit access to various websites for security and productivity reasons.

The tools used to bypass these blocks to date include the US Navy-developed high security router software TOR, VPNs and other security software.

Hola! explained.

While these might be appropriate for some uses, they are complicated to use and are overkill for an individual who just wants the freedom to talk to their friends on Facebook.

The Hola! client software makes bypassing these blocks trivial. When a user wants to visit a blocked site, the Hola! client takes that request, encrypts it and sends it to another computer with Hola! installed.

That second computer works as a proxy by then decrypting the request and then accessing the relevant service. The resulting content is again encrypted by the second computer and forwarded to the original user.

For speed and efficiency, the Hola! client will use several proxies - with each handling a small part of the traffic.

The lack of a central server in a peer-to-peer model such as this means that Hola! is difficult to block - a successful blocklist would need to be constantly updated and could run to thousands of internet addresses as it would need to block every user of the Hola! client.

Bypassing government censorship is widely accepted as a good thing - at least in western democracies.

Hola! is yet another example supporting American innovator John Gilmore’s famous quote: “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”.

Join the conversation

7 Comments sorted by

  1. George Michaelson

    Person

    You mention TPM. I think the context where Australia is conducting negotiations for the TPP also would be worth pondering here, because I suspect since the vast majority of content is produced in the USA, we can expect the US negotiators to demand respect of their domestic IPR regime.

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  2. Daniel Kinsman

    logged in via Twitter

    I worry a bit about the security implications of redirecting your traffic to random people in a non-anonymised way (unlike TOR). I'd feel better if it only happened for the select few websites it mentions (e.g. iplayer) where security and privacy aren't top priorities. But the "web-accelerator" functionality sounds dangerous.

    Apparently when you view a website, it caches the data locally, and if one of your peers requests it the same site, it pulls the cached version off of your machine. I can myself having some fun with this and replacing all images with cat gifs or turning them all upside down.

    Of course then there's the danger of you using this and one of your "peers" looking up something illegal using your instance as a proxy, leading to the cops knocking on your door.

    I also worry a bit about their non-existent revenue model, where "We plan to make our money from premium services we will offer in the future". But then I always was a cynic.

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Daniel Kinsman

      "Of course then there's the danger of you using this and one of your "peers" looking up something illegal using your instance as a proxy, leading to the cops knocking on your door."

      I was wondering the same thing. ATM there is a plug-in for FireFox that changes the IP address, thus allowing access to sites like Comedy Central from Australia.

      However, despite the dark side of the net, I have to agree that the internet needs protection from far greater powers than the average user.

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    2. Karl Schaffarczyk

      Law Honours Candidate at University of Canberra

      In reply to Daniel Kinsman

      Dianna, Daniel, I agree that this may turn out to be a real issue. However, I am unaware of what protections Hola! can offer (if any).
      Last year an Austrian man was investigated and charged for dealing in child exploitation material. It appears that while he was voluntarily operating a node of the TOR Project police traced traffic of the child porn back to his TOR node. Due to the anonymous nature of TOR, it was not possible to find the originator of the traffic.
      See: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/11/tor-operator-charged-for-child-porn-transmitted-over-his-servers/

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    3. Daniel Kinsman

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Karl Schaffarczyk

      The difference is anyone operating a TOR *exit* node generally knows what they are doing and how it
      works. Of course the police made a grave mistake arresting him as he wasn't doing anything wrong or illegal. But people who are just TOR end users don't have to worry about this at all as they don't make cleartext requests to the internet on behalf of their peers.

      In contrast, Hola is targeted at your average joe who just wants to watch hulu, and doesn't know how it works under the hood. When the cops show up at his door, his only defense will be "i didn't do it". It will be a lot of time and stress (and breaching of his privacy) before they figure it out.

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  3. Gary Myers

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I give it a couple of months before users start finding their download caps are getting hit halfway through the month. And then they'll complain to their ISPs about the mysterious downloads they will claim to know nothing about.

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