Should you lose your right to access content when travelling abroad?
With your own on demand sites geo-blocked and no ability to access local paid content are travelling consumers caught in a content black hole?

The Beverly Hilton is used to hosting major events but one smaller media gathering, sandwiched between the Producer’s Guild Awards and Grammy Parties in January 2014, went largely unnoticed despite being their first live streaming of a major UK television event. Probably. Whilst it wasn’t strictly an officially sanctioned hotel event Hayley Cropper’s death on Coronation Street gained a surprisingly large following of curious Los Angelenos peering over my shoulder at my iPad on the bar in Trader Vic’s muttering how such an exquisitely written show could possibly have been overlooked the night before upstairs at their awards ceremony.

As the curtain fell and the closing credits used up the last of my free allowance on the VPN software I had installed to ensure that being in the US would not mean I would miss the end of a story I’d followed for months before, the discussion with the assembled media crowd turned to the legality of a UK resident watching content licensed for the UK on a UK broadcast app but visiting the US at the time.

At that time I was travelling regularly and spending around 3-4 months of the year in the US and which in anyone’s book is a large percentage of the year to lose your right to consume the content you pay for, especially being an avid fan of high value film, television and sports content. The frustration was that, without exception, the numerous content providers to which I subscribed had gone to great lengths to provide me with apps to watch my paid-for content when out of the house but also went to similar lengths to ensure that as soon as I crossed the UK border their apps would block my access.

Their argument would be that I have access to content in the US instead but as a non-US resident and without a US credit card I did not have the right to sign up to those comparable services in the US. The reality is that you are in consumer limbo with the only option being to engage in a game of cat and mouse by using a VPN to return to the UK, virtually at least, and try to stay ahead of the content provider geo-blocking technology.

It seems strange that four years later other than moving VPNs (to one that seems more adept at sidestepping the attempts of the platforms to identify VPNs and close the door) very little has changed, with the exception of Netflix, who now provide access to the content available in the territory in which you are currently located irrespective of the territory in which your subscription was initiated. The idea of being a roaming consumer is a welcome and interesting offering but still doesn’t guarantee you access to the shows you are partway through watching if those are not licensed to Netflix in both your home territory and the country you are visiting.

Whilst I always accepted that my unusual lifestyle wasn’t the most significant problem the industry is facing it is symptomatic of a broader issue which is the disconnect between the expectations of consumers when purchasing or subscribing to content and their subsequent ability to access that content whether it is due to territory and device restrictions or other unexpected small print conditions.

There are countries in which the use of a VPN is illegal and there are also countries in which types of content are banned and it is important that local laws and customs are respected but where a consumer is accessing content which is legal in that country and via a VPN that is legal in that country and for which they have already paid in their home country it is hard to explain to them why they should not have that right and not to be blocked by the same technology designed to prevent piracy or attempts to access content via platforms on which the user does not have a valid subscription.

In upcoming articles we will explore in greater detail how the lowest common denominator approach to security and access could be improved so that paying consumers are provided with full access to the content they own or license.

Ben Clasper

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