Everywhere and nowhere

December 4, 2010

It’s fun to say that the Internet tears down walls and allows a free flow of information around the world.  In many ways, it’s true.  People can communicate and organize in ways never before possible.  But at the same time, people can be blocked and restricted from content just as easily.  Look at China, Iran, North Korea, Singapore, and many other states that prevent their citizens from free use of the Internet. This is not a post on the freedom of the Internet.  It’s also not a grand statement about the Internet’s role in democratization.  It’s about how I can’t watch my US television shows, and how I climbed over the wall.  Listen, I can be selfish sometimes.

Copyright law in the United States is terribly antiquated and anti-innovation.  The first copyright law in the US was passed in 1790 to protect “maps, charts and books” for a period of 14 years.  That was it.  You couldn’t extend it, music wasn’t covered and they stupidly forgot to write a provision about online file sharing. Today, worldwide brands like Mickey Mouse are used to extend copyright terms that currently last for the life of the author + 70 years, or 120 years from the publishing of a corporate creation.  And just about everything falls under copyright.

Why does this matter? Well, if a television show is copyrighted in the United States, it can’t be shown elsewhere in the world without a specific licensing agreement in that country.  With protection from legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), websites like Hulu.com only stream content within the United States.  Bummer for my weekly Glee and Modern Family fix.  They know where I’m located because of the IP address my computer is assigned when I connect to the Internet.  The software code is implementing legal code to block my access to content and flashes a big copyright notice instead of auto-tuned quasi-teenagers prancing on a high school stage.  Every time you post a funny video on Facebook that falls within the licensing wall, I want to punch you in the face.

How do we get around this?  We fake it - and it’s really easy.  A VPN, or ‘virtual private network’, creates a connection with another computer in the world and allows you to piggyback off of its connection to the Internet, among other uses.  You probably use one to access your work email from home.  I use it to watch TV.  Who wins here?

Astrill is a service offering the simplest method of using a VPN to pretend you’re in the United States, or Canada, or somewhere in Europe.  It’s pretty shameless in advertising its use to watch Hulu and other sites for TV.  It’s fast, it always works, and you can change your location on the fly.  Scranton was a little slow last night, so I hopped over to Seattle and then to Los Angeles.  Cheapest way to fly - only $20 for 3 months.

Using a VPN is fun for other reasons.  You can trick location-based services like Twitter, geo-targeted advertising,  and trip Google’s fraud sensors.  Check who is showing ads on CNN.com in Detroit or San Francisco or Berlin.  Endless fun….[nerd].  You can also use it for security purposes and evade snoopers and network restrictions placed on you by your office or school.

So, if you’re like me and are missing out on your US-based TV shows or other content, do yourself a favor and get a VPN instead of wasting your time and eyesight on megavideo or casttv.  There are bigger discussions to be had here about Internet barriers, content regulation and anonymity on the web, but I have a new episode of The Office to catch up on.  See you in Scranton.

Full disclosure: I will get a cut of your subscription if you sign up using the links above, but you get 10% off.  Win-win.