Faced with increasing local website censorship and Internet services that restrict access depending on where a user is based, more and more people are turning to specialist services designed to overcome such limitations.
With prices plummeting to just a few dollars a month in recent years, VPNs are now within the budgets of most people. However, there are always those who prefer to get such services for free, without giving much consideration to how that might be economically viable.
One of the most popular free VPN/geo-unblocking solutions on the planet is operated by Israel-based Hola. It can be added to most popular browsers in seconds and has an impressive seven million users on Chrome alone. Overall the company boasts 46 million users of its service.
Now, however, the company is facing accusations from 8chan message board operator Fredrick Brennan. He claims that Hola users’ computers were used to attack his website without their knowledge, and that was made possible by the way Hola is setup.
“When a user installs Hola, he becomes a VPN endpoint, and other users of the Hola network may exit through his internet connection and take on his IP. This is what makes it free: Hola does not pay for the bandwidth that its VPN uses at all, and there is no user opt out for this,” Brennan says.
In an effort to gain more subscribers HBO launched its standalone “HBO Now” service earlier this year.
The subscription allows Americans to access HBO’s content, including Game of Thrones, without the need to have a television subscription.
With the offer HBO hopes to drive people away from pirate sites, but it also created a new form of unauthorized use. As with Netflix and Hulu, many people outside the U.S. signed up for the service through VPNs and other geo-unblocking tools.
While Netflix is still fairly lax about geo-unblocking, HBO is now cracking down on the practice. A few days ago thousands of VPN and proxy “pirates” started to receive worrying email warnings.
After Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked the Australian Cabinet to approve the development of a new legal mechanism allowing rightsholders to obtain site-blocking injunctions, legislation was introduced to parliament last month.
What followed is a still-current six-week consultation period for additional submissions, with various groups invited to voice their opinions and concerns.
While the site-blocking elements of the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 are likely to please rightsholders, concerns remain that not only will the legislation fail to achieve its aims, but may also have unintended consequences that could stifle consumer choice.
In its submission the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), the body that represents the interests of consumers on communications issues including broadband and emerging Internet services, three key issues are raised – VPN use, efficacy and cost of blocking, plus consumer interests.
The VPN problem
ACCAN is concerned over some of the wording employed in the amendments. Instead of referencing “website blocking”, the legislation speaks about “online locations”. While this appears to be an effort to future-proof the Bill, it also has the potential for additional consequences should rightsholders decide to exploit the ambiguity.
“Our first concern relates to the scope of activities that may be picked up by an interpretation of an ‘online location’ which ‘facilitates an infringement’ of copyright,” ACCAN writes.
“Without clear legal precedent, there is ambiguity under the Copyright Act about what constitutes infringement in relation to the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to gain access to geo-blocked products and services. If this ambiguity is not cleared up, this amendment may have the unintended consequence of blocking these services and in turn harm competition and consumer choice.”
And confusion does exist. On his website Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull says that the Copyright Act does not make it illegal to use a VPN to access overseas content. On the other hand, the Australian Copyright Council believes that using a VPN to download content licensed overseas is “likely to be an infringement of copyright in Australia.”
While it was previously reported that the Bill had been delayed due to modifications aimed at protecting VPN-like services, ACCAN says that it would prefer clarity on the matter.
“While this ambiguity exists there is a risk that rights holders will attempt to use this injunctive power to block VPN websites and limit consumer access to paid content overseas,” the group writes.
And the threat is real. As reported last week, New Zealand based media companies report that they are on the verge of suing local ISPs who provide VPN services designed to unlock overseas content. Avoiding the same thing Down Under is a priority for ACCAN.
As Internet users demand more freedom online alongside an ability to consume media in a manner of their choosing, tools allowing them to do so are gaining in popularity.
Notable has been the rise of VPN services, which not only provide an increased level of privacy but also allow users to appear in any country they choose. This opens up a whole new world of content availability – such as better service from Netflix – often at better prices than those offered on home turf.
While popular with consumers, this behavior is frowned upon by distribution companies that spend huge sums of money on content licensing deals specific to their regions of coverage. Losing customers to overseas providers isn’t part of their plan and now some are doing something about it.
Earlier this month media companies SKY, TVNZ, Lightbox and MediaWorks told several Kiwi ISPs that if they don’t stop providing VPN services to their subscribers, legal trouble would be on the horizon.
Within days one of their targets, Unlimited Internet, pulled its VPN service after receiving a letter from a lawfirm claiming breaches of the Copyright Act. However, CallPlus and Bypass Network Services have no intention of caving in to the media giants’ demands.
“To receive without warning a grossly threatening legal letter like that from four of the largest companies in New Zealand is not something we are used to,” wrote Bypass CEO Patrick Jordan-Smith in a letter to the media companies.
“It smacks of bullying to be honest, especially since your letter doesn’t actually say why you think we are breaching copyright.”
Pulling no punches and describing his adversaries as a “gang”, Jordan-Smith likens the threats to those employed by copyright trolls in the United States.
“Your letter gets pretty close to the speculative invoicing type letters that lawyers for copyright owners sometimes send in the US ‘pay up or shutdown or else were are going to sue you’! Not fair,” he writes.
“We have been providing the Global Mode facility for 2 years. In all that time, none of your Big Media Gang have ever written to us. We assumed they were OK with Global Mode and we continued to spend money innovating the facility and providing innovative NZ ISPs with a service that their customers were telling them they wanted – a service that lets people pay for content rather than pirate it.”
The response from Bypass hasn’t been well received by the media companies who now say they will carry through with their threats to sue over breaches of copyright.
“Our position has not changed and unless they remove the unlawful service we will begin court action in the next few days,” says TVNZ chief executive, Kevin Kenrick.
“Each of our businesses invests significant sums of money into the rights to screen content sourced legitimately from the creators and owners of that copyrighted material. This is being undermined by the companies who profit from promoting illegitimate ways to access that content.”
Claiming that the action is aimed at defending the value of content rights in the digital world, Kenrick says that the legal action is not consumer focused.
“This is not about taking action against individual consumers or restricting choice, indeed each of our businesses are investing heavily in more choice so New Zealanders can have legitimate access to the latest TV shows and movies,” the CEO concludes.
While the commercial position of the TVNZ chief is understandable, his claim that this legal action isn’t aimed at reducing choice simply doesn’t stack up. Kiwis using Netflix locally get access to around 220 TV series and 900 movies, while those using a VPN to tunnel into the United States enjoy around 940 TV series and 6,170 movies, something which Bypass Networks believes is completely legal.
“[We provide our service] on our understanding that geo-unblocking to allow people to digitally import content purchased overseas is perfectly legal. If you say it is not, then we are going to need a lot more detail from you to understand why,” Jordan-Smith informs his adversaries.
“Simply sending us a threatening letter, as frightening as that may be, does not get us there and is not a fair reason for us to shut down our whole business.”
While VPN services have always been associated with privacy, in recent years they have bloomed into tools providing much more than a simple way to stay cloaked online.
For a relatively small fee, users of the most popular VPN services can tunnel out of their country of origin and reappear in any one of dozens of countries around the world. This opens up a whole new world of media consumption opportunities.
Citizens of the United States, for example, can access BBC iPlayer just like any other Brit might, while those in the UK looking to sample the widest possible Netflix offering can easily tunnel right back into the U.S.
This cross-border content consumption is not popular with entertainment companies and distributors. It not only undermines their ability to set prices on a per-region basis, but also drives a truck through hard-negotiated licensing agreements.
Tired of dealing with ISPs including Slingshot who offer a dedicated ‘global mode‘ VPN service for customers, last week media companies in New Zealand ran out of patience.
“We pay considerable amounts of money for content rights, particularly exclusive content rights. These rights are being knowingly and illegally impinged, which is a significant issue that may ultimately need to be resolved in court in order to provide future clarity for all parties involved,” Lightbox, MediaWorks, SKY, and TVNZ said in a joint statement.
“This is not about taking action against consumers; this is a business-to-business issue and is about creating a fair playing field.”
Before being granted limited local access to Netflix just last month, Kiwis were required to level their own playing fields by paying for a VPN service and an account at an overseas supplier in order to legally obtain a decent range of premium content. However, the media companies now want to bring an end to that free choice via legal action. Today they claimed their first scalp.
This morning Unlimited Internet became the first ISP to respond to media company pressure by pulling its geo-unblocking service known as “TV VPN” after receiving a warning letter from a lawfirm.
The letter, which has been sent out to several local ISPs, informs Unlimited Internet that its VPN service infringes the Copyright Act of 1994.
Unlimited Internet director Ben Simpson says that while his company doesn’t necessarily agree with that assertion, it has taken down the service nonetheless.
“Geo-unblocking services are a direct result of consumer demand for access to content that is not made available to the New Zealand market,” Simpson says.
“To be on the safe side, we have taken legal advice on this matter and I have made a firm call that we will sit on the sideline until a legal precedent has been set.”
Australia has been called out as the world’s piracy capital for several years, a claim that eventually captured the attention of the local Government.
After negotiations between ISPs and entertainment companies bore no fruit, authorities demanded voluntary anti-piracy measures from Internet providers. If that failed, the Government threatened to tighten the law.
Faced with an ultimatum the telecoms body Communications Alliance published a draft proposal on behalf of the ISPs, outlining a three-strikes notification system.
Titled ‘Copyright Notice Scheme Industry Code‘, the proposal suggests that ISPs start to forward infringement notices to their subscribers. After the initial notice subscribers are warned that copyright holders may go to court to obtain their identities.
Several groups have voiced their concerns in response. Australia’s leading consumer group Choice, for example, warns over the potential for lawsuits and potentially limitless fines.
These threats haven’t gone unnoticed by the general public either. While the proposals have not yet been implemented, many Australians are already taking countermeasures.
Over the past two weeks many file-sharers have been seeking tools to hide their IP-addresses and bypass the proposed monitoring system. By using VPN services or BitTorrent proxies their sharing activities can no longer be linked to their ISP account, rendering the three-strikes system useless.
Data from Google trends reveals that interest in anonymizing services has surged, with searches for “VPN” nearly doubling in recent days. This effect, shown in the graph below, is limited to Australia and appears to be a direct result of the ISPs proposals.
VPN services have become an important tool to counter the growing threat of Internet surveillance, but unfortunately not all VPNs are as anonymous as one might hope. In fact, some VPN services log users’ IP-addresses and other private info for months. To find out how anonymous VPNs really are, TF asked the leading providers about their logging practices and other privacy sensitive policies.
spyBy now most Internet users are well aware of the fact that pretty much every step they take on the Internet is logged or monitored.
To prevent their IP-addresses from being visible to the rest of the Internet, millions of people have signed up to a VPN service. Using a VPN allows users to use the Internet anonymously and prevent snooping.
Unfortunately, not all VPN services are as anonymous as they claim, as several incidents have shown in the past.
By popular demand we now present the fourth iteration of our VPN services “logging” review. In addition to questions about logging practices, we also asked VPN providers about other privacy sensitive policies, so prospective users can make an informed decision.
After developing a reputation for being some of the most prolific online pirates around, last year Australian citizens were told by the government that enough is enough.
Since years of negotiations between ISPs and entertainment companies had gone nowhere, service providers were told to propose voluntary measures to deter and educate pirating subscribers or have one forced upon them by law.
With a deadline looming, telecoms body the Communications Alliance has now published its draft proposal on behalf of its ISP members. Titled “Copyright Notice Scheme Industry Code”, the 34-page document hopes to pacify rightsholders and their allies in government by outlining a graduated response mechanism to deal with file-sharers.
“The Copyright Notice Scheme Code is designed to facilitate a cooperative industry-led copyright notice scheme through which
Internet Service Providers and the owners of copyright works will work to deter the practice of online copyright infringement and inform consumers about available and lawful content alternatives,” the draft begins.
“The Code provides for the creation of a copyright notice scheme under which ISPs will accept reports (in a prescribed format) from Rights Holders. The reports will identify Internet Protocol addresses that a Rights Holder alleges have been used to infringe copyright in online work of the Rights Holder. The reports will request that the relevant ISP notify the relevant Account Holders of the alleged infringements.”
Speaking at Infoforum-2015, Russian MP Leonid Levin, who is deputy head of the Duma Committee on information politics, indicated that access to anonymization and circumvention tools such as TOR, VPNs and even web proxies, needs to be restricted.
Branded a “Netflix for Pirates,” the Popcorn Time app quickly gathered a user base of millions of people over the past year.
There are several successful forks of the application available online who all work on their own feature sets.
Popcorn-time.se, has been one of the most active projects. The fork added numerous features and made privacy one of its key selling points.
Last year it was the first fork to roll out a built-in VPN that could be used free of charge. However, with millions of users the associated VPN provider Kebrum had trouble keeping up with the massive demand.
“Our user base grew so quickly and is still growing at a tremendous pace that we’re having difficulties keeping up with the volume. Only a small percentage of the huge number of our users we have can use the VPN simultaneously at the moment,” the Popcorn Time team tells TF.
This motivated the developers to look for various alternatives to keep its users secure. In this quest the Invisible Internet Project (I2P) caught their eye.
“We’re now making the first steps in examining integration of Popcorn Time with the I2P network,” the team explains.