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Should streaming services block VPN users?

It has been an open secret for years that users can get around regional location-based blocks using a virtual private network (VPN), but what more people have started to realise over recent months is that they can also significantly reduce their bills the same way. As the music and video streaming wars heat up and the services push for profitability, it begs the question of whether they should make more of an effort to block VPN users from accessing their services.

Video streaming services tend to have different films and TV shows available within each country they operate thanks to a complex web of licensing restrictions and regional sales. As a result, many people from across the world have become used to using VPNs to access the generally better content libraries available on the US version of Netflix or Amazon Prime. Such region-switching is well known, and whilst these videos services have been known to crack down on VPN users and IP addresses on occasion, in general they turn a blind eye to the practice.

Such region-switching has been more of an issue for services like BBC iPlayer, where users do not have to pay to access the services if they are located in the UK as all UK users pay a yearly license fee. However, for sports games and other expensive content, there has been a trend for international users to appear like UK users to access the BBC’s content free and without advertisements, freeloading off UK license-fee payers.

However, the most underhand way VPN users have managed to avoid paying full fees for the services they use is to switch their location to a lower wealth country like Turkey where plans for Spotify and Netflix are a fraction of what UK or US users pay each month, subscribe with a no-fee international bank card, often saving themselves significant money over the course of a year.

Blocking VPN users is a game of cat and mouse for digital platforms, and as the practice was relatively rare in years past (or rarer than password sharing anyway), they have generally chosen to ignore the issue. However, with an increasing number of people now using a VPN on a regular basis and becoming aware of how they can make the most of their variable digital location, the platforms may soon start to crack down.

The platforms may find it difficult, however, to target these VPN users without accidentally also targeting legitimate users within those cheaper countries and also legitimate VPN users who are not region-switching but just using a VPN connection to protect their privacy. Indeed, even on a governmental level it has proven near-impossible to block websites or users from bypassing restrictions, as Australia is finding out with its recent announcement that it will attempt to block various offshore gambling websites. How authorities plan to sort the best Australian online casino form the worst remains to be seen, but if other country’s blocks are anything to go by, using a VPN will generally get around any such restrictions.

Rather than blocking outright, it may be a more productive effort for authorities to put together an official directory like that could highlight all the legitimate operators Australians should be using instead of trying to play whack-a-mole with the many others that they should not.

Photograph by Stocksnap

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