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Olympic fans unhappy with NBC find a way to access BBC

Some computer users in the U.S. displeased with NBC's coverage of the London Olympics are using VPNs, or virtual private networks, to view BBC coverage.

August 01, 2012|By Laura Hautala, Los Angeles Times
  • BBC spokesman Ian Walker said the broadcaster “geo-blocks its online content,” as required by program providers. Above, the Tower Bridge in London.
BBC spokesman Ian Walker said the broadcaster “geo-blocks its online… (Rainer Jensen, European…)

Not happy with NBC's coverage of the Olympics?

There's an online alternative that's commercial free, more international in scope and does not feature Ryan Seacrest.

It's at the BBC website, where the British broadcaster streams the Games live and offers clips in high-quality video just a tantalizing click away.

The catch? That click will not work outside Britain.

Or at least it's not supposed to. Some viewers have found a way around the BBC restriction by using a common online business tool — a virtual private network that can cost as little as $10 a month.

VPNs have numerous uses, most often to let companies give employees access to their in-house computer networks no matter where the employees are worldwide.

But some Olympic fans are using them to fool the BBC into thinking a computer is in Britain when it isn't.

"I'm not a big fan of the NBC," said Pascal Finette, an executive at the nonprofit Mozilla organization that oversees the Firefox Internet browser.

Finette, 39, who is originally from Germany, uses a VPN to watch the BBC coverage in his home in Saratoga, Calif. He said he prefers BBC "in terms of the way they broadcast information as well as the sheer breadth of the coverage."

Another VPN user, New Orleans resident Eli Mergel, 36, favors the BBC's presentation.

"The announcers aren't as annoying," Mergel said.

Temporary VPN connections can be downloaded online and some providers — including Lamnia VPN, which is based in Northampton, England — are not shy in promoting the connections' use by foreigners to view the BBC.

"Watching UK TV with Lamnia is as easy as 1,2,3," the service proclaims on its home page.

The BBC site states in its online terms of service, however, that viewers outside Britain "may not access, view and/or listen to certain parts of BBC content," including "video or live television services."

But Lamnia director Chris Bedford says the use of VPN to electronically transport a computer to Britain is not clearly forbidden.

"It is a completely gray area," Bedford said. "From our perspective, people are using a U.K. connection."

He said the BBC has not contacted Lamnia to object to its service.

Mitch Stoltz, a staff attorney at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said that it's unclear whether using a VPN connection in the U.S. to watch foreign TV is illegal.

"I don't think you're violating any copyright laws by doing this," Stoltz said.

He said it's "not impossible" that the BBC would sue for breach of its terms of service. But it's not, in his view, likely.

"I don't think they're going to try to sue users on that, because it would be incredibly bad PR," Stoltz said.

VPN providers are another matter. "They may try to sue the middleman if it presents a large enough target," he said.

BBC spokesman Ian Walker said the broadcaster "geo-blocks its online content," as required by program providers. He would not respond to questions about VPN use to get around the blocks.

The situation is not likely to go away, especially with Twitter buzzing with complaints over NBC. Fans of the Olympic Games have sent sharply critical messages about the network's announcers, commercials (including the ones on NBC online) and overall coverage.

As word spread about VPNs, some thought they would give them a try to access the BBC or, closer to home, the CTV site in Canada.

"Dear NBCSports," tweeted Bettie Tussey, a real estate agent in Virginia, "I will be using VPN to watch either CTV or BBC from now on. And I'll share how to do it for anyone who needs help."

laura.hautala@latimes.com

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