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TECH TRENDS

VPN opens a forbidden window

The BBC strictly limits access to its online archive of TV shows. But that didn't stop us.

January 31, 2010|By David Colker

A treasure trove of TV shows can be found archived on the BBC website, featuring classic dramas, sitcoms, concerts, sports events, operas and documentaries.

But, except in rare cases, you can't see them.

They're electronically restricted to Internet users in Britain. Elsewhere, the stream is blocked.

Ditto for two other major British TV networks. ITV is home to "Britain's Got Talent," the show that made Susan Boyle a mega-star. And Channel 4 has online episodes of "Gordon Ramsay's Great Escape," a new show starring the highly popular, profane chef.

You can't see those, either.

But I can.

That's because I'm using a virtual private network, a technology best known for its use by businesses and political dissidents (for very different reasons).

A VPN provides a tunnel that lets online data travel undetected until it gets to its destination server, which could be anywhere in the world.

Businesses use VPNs to allow far-flung employees to access secure company computers as if they were in the same building. Dissidents use them to get around electronic firewalls erected by censors.

For international TV watchers, a VPN can fool a network into thinking a computer is located inside an allowed area. The service I'm using makes it appear, to the Internet, that I'm in London.

That way I have access to the hundreds of shows on the BBC's iPlayer site. Without it, I get a curt "Not available in your area" or similar message if I click on a program.

How does the BBC know where I am? Or at least thinks it knows?

Because every computer that's connected to the Internet has an Internet Protocol (IP) address that contains location information. Based on that, a network can cut out any IP address not in approved areas.

But a VPN, like an electronic con man, masks the truth. It allows nearly anyone who is a fan of British football (we call it soccer) around the world to get around the geographical restrictions.

The government-owned BBC refused requests to talk about its restrictions on access to online content, referring to explanations on its website that it has not secured the rights to allow programs to stream in foreign countries. ITV didn't respond to interview requests.

However, Channel 4 spokesman Michael Baker was willing to explain that network's position.

"It's part of our rights agreements with producers," Baker said. By law, Channel 4, which is publicly owned but supported by advertising, cannot produce its own shows. Instead it commissions or acquires programming from independent producers.

Generally, the deals allow Channel 4 (despite the name, it operates more than one channel) to broadcast a program twice, and also place it on its site for free viewing for 30 days in Britain and Ireland.

Channel 4 could negotiate the rights to allow other counties to view a show online, but it doesn't.

"It's not worth it," Baker said. "Perhaps we could make money from the international exploitation of a show. But we're not seeking vast sums of money to keep shareholders happy. We have no shareholders."

International online rights are generally retained by the producers.

John McVay -- chief executive of Pact, an organization of independent producers in Britain -- doesn't mince words about VPN services that circumvent the geographical restrictions.

"They are leeches on the back of our system," he said.

"It's just another way to try and bypass the legitimate business model. They take money off the backs of other people's endeavors and investment."

Lamnia VPN, the British company whose VPN service I used, doesn't try to hide this function.

"By placing your connection through our servers you can appear where you want to be and connect and enjoy the Internet from that location," the company says on its site.

Lamnia, headquartered in Northhampton about 70 miles from London, did not respond to interview requests.

The service costs 7.75 British pounds a month -- about $12.50 at the current exchange rate.

Its VPN lines are not just for U.S. use. Lamnia also offers British residents a VPN service to the U.S. that can be used to watch shows on the popular Hulu online service that's not supposed to be available in Europe.

Is TV watching via VPN legal?

McVay said he was sure that it wasn't, comparing it to illegal peer-to-peer services for music and video downloading.

"They don't have the right to grant access to those shows," McVay said.

He said that some producers in Pact have complained. But neither he nor Baker knew of any cases concerning VPNs and TV watching that had made it to court.

It's hardly a problem of huge proportions -- most people don't even know about the VPN work-around.

Or perhaps care. It's doubtful that folks in huge numbers would pay monthly fees to see British TV fare.

But there are undeniably fascinating TV shows behind the electronic curtain. Last week, on the BBC alone, you could get episodes of the devastatingly witty quiz show "QI," a documentary about the philosopher Aristotle's nature studies, an orchestral concert that was part of the popular Proms festival and the first episode of a series on the history of Christianity.

Of course, there are others, like "Masters Snooker," that would get ratings on this side of the pond even lower than the new "90210."

Also curiosities such as "The Hairy Bikers," which is a cooking show. Honest.

A VPN ensures, long after the breakup of the British empire, that the sun never sets on access to BBC shows.

For better or worse.

david.colker@latimes.com

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