VPNs have been around almost as long as the internet itself. From the earliest of days, the desire for security within the enterprise market created a market within enterprise solutions for end-to-end connections on the internet that went through their own encrypted tunnel; rather than the open internet.
This “Virtual Private Network” system, as it became known, not only provided secure end-to-end connections, it also had two features which gave rise to its popularity.
The first is the ability to shield your browsing behaviour from outside eyes (for example your ISP, who may go on and sell it to the highest bidder to help tailor ads, etc).
The second is being able to “spoof” geo-filtering systems by having an end -point within a region that gives you access to content not available in your home territory.
Where is the harm in that you might ask? Certainly, in the case of the former, the desire for privacy would suggest it made sense to use a VPN if you can’t trust your ISP (assuming of course you can trust the VPN!).
In the case of the latter, the issue is much more debatable. There is sympathy in many quarters for browsers in more repressive territories to be able to beat the censor by accessing more objective news about what is happening in their home or even around the world.
Foreign online streaming
However, this noble cause is also often used as a smoke screen for probably the most common reason that anyone signs up for a VPN: the desire to watch content from a foreign online streaming service more conveniently / cheaper than is available at home.
Data from GlobalWebIndex back in 2015 (yes 2015) indicated that Netflix has 100 million users from China, without their even having a Chinese service! (ed: Netflix has just under 104 million active users as of Q2 2017).
Although that number may well have been inflated as a result of Chinese users signing up multiple times for the free two week trial (theoretically for US-based viewers!) there can be no question that VPN usage to beat geo-filtering systems and thus access content from abroad, has become very common.
As bandwidth has increased, the quality and popularity of online streaming sites has grown and for the same reason (better bandwidth) so has the popularity of VPNs to enable viewers to sign into their digital global passports to browse the world’s OTT content.
The consequences of "Geo-piracy"
Due to the importance to the monetization of content of “windowing” or selling of content exclusively on a territory-by-territory basis, the harm that is being done to the creative industries from this abuse cannot be just brushed under the carpet.
The Sony Hack back in 2014 made it clear just how damaging the studios found this “Geo-piracy” and the eventual clamp down that Netflix made in early 2016 shows just what is possible to ensure that content can be made more resistant to VPN based “leakage” across borders.
However, apart from a handful of the best operators, nearly all OTT sites remain very vulnerable to being spoofed by a VPN and, as such, very popular to many VPN users!
However, as the damage to content producers becomes better understood, and awareness that solutions exist to stop it grows, our prediction is that the days of this use case for VPNs at least, are numbered.
- David Briggs is the Chairman of GeoGuard