In September, Eleven Sports aired Barcelona vs. Athletic Bilbao on its UK OTT streaming service, in a clear breach of the long-standing blackout restriction placed on UK broadcasters by the English Football Association (The FA).
That restriction dictates that live football games cannot be broadcast in the UK between 2:45pm and 5:15pm on a Saturday, to encourage attendance at local matches. However, after receiving a strong backlash from the FA, Eleven Sports have begrudgingly rescinded this policy, and will not be showing games during the blackout period for the foreseeable future.
Testing the FA’s Blackout Rule Via VPN
To test the effectiveness of this blackout rule, GeoGuard, as specialists in protecting digital content from geo-piracy and geolocation spoofing via VPNs and DNS proxies, undertook an experiment to determine if it is still possible to access these games on Eleven Sports OTT service during the blackout period, in contravention of the FA rule.
As a little more background to the experiment, Eleven Sports broadcasts live La Liga games, along with other football leagues, in multiple countries. So, we wanted to find out how difficult it would be for a fan in the UK to watch one of these foreign streams during the blackout period on Saturday afternoons.
As it turns out, it’s incredibly easy.
All that a UK fan requires is a VPN service, along with their UK credit card. Several VPN services can be found either for free (but beware of trojan horses hijacking your system) or for as little as £2/month, allowing a UK fan to easily circumvent Eleven Sport’s simple IP-based geolocation protection by pretending to be from a country outside the UK.
Studies Show VPNs Primarily Used to Access Restricted Content
The practice of utilizing a VPN to bypass territorial restriction has become increasingly commonplace, especially for live sports streams. In fact, research by Global Web Index suggests as many as 1-in-4 internet users utilize a VPN service on a regular basis – primarily to access restricted content.
Other segments of the media industry have also taken a laissez faire attitude to upholding their contractual broadcast agreements, and this is particularly true in regards to enforcing territorial restrictions on who can access their content. Simply stated, geolocation spoofing and geo-piracy via VPNs and DNS Proxies undermines the territorial business model that studios, content owners and media rights holders rely on for revenue.
Further, it’s up to these content owners and rights holders to enforce their contractual obligations by mandating (and monitoring) the use of effective VPN detection and blocking technology (that is readily available) on their streaming broadcasters.
VPNs Negatively Impact Traditional Broadcast Revenue
In 2015, Netflix famously had 30 million subscribers from countries where they had no service offering. These actions come at the expense of domestic broadcasters, with the likes of Sky New Zealand (operating in a country where VPN usage is particularly widespread) losing 58,000 subscribers and AUD$241m last year as its customer base continued to look abroad to buy grey market content.
As new types of devices come into play such as smart TVs, tablets, mobile phones and other streaming hardware, geolocation fraud via VPNs and DNS Proxies will continue to grow if left unchecked. Whether you’re a motion picture or TV studio, content owner, sports league, media rightsholder or premium OTT broadcaster, it is important to understand how geolocation fraud is significantly impacting the entire digital content ecosystem and start employing technologies to stop it.
Does Content Leakage Via VPNs Matter?
So, in the end, does it matter to the FA? Indeed it does, since losing actual attending fans to their games (by having footballs fans just stay home to watch Spanish matches streaming on their TV) will impact the revenues of the teams and league in general.
And when it comes to selling media rights in England, where the FA again makes the bulk of their broadcast revenue, it matters even more. If the FA doesn’t enforce their territorial pricing model (whereby rights in their domestic market are sold for higher prices than in secondary markets) by demanding that secondary market streaming providers implement effective VPN and DNS Proxy detection and blocking technology, then their problems are really just starting.
It’s normal for people to seek out the lowest price for the same thing, so if a person can simply use a VPN to spoof their location in order to sign up for a secondary market service with a lower price, they will. And in most cases, they get access to more games (no blackouts or other restrictions) and save money to boot. It’s well within the FA’s powers to enforce the territorial licensing restrictions (and blackout provisions) that already exist in their contracts with secondary streaming broadcasters, and enable the league and the teams they govern to remain financially viable now and in the future.