In Summary

  • Analysis for Inside Story by Ramon Lombato, Swinburne University of Technology and James Meese, Swinburne University of Technology

Over the past decade Australia has become an unlikely hotspot of digital disobedience. Frustrated by the high cost and slow delivery of first-release TV and movies from the United States – and by their own perceived status as second-class media citizens – Australians have taken to offshore streaming with a singular enthusiasm, signing up for virtual private networks, or VPNs, and proxy services and using them to gain access to Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now in the United States, and the BBC’s iPlayer.

These practices climaxed during the years 2012 to 2014, and subsided somewhat after the launch of Stan, Presto, and Netflix’s Australian service. But the phenomenon of digital “geo-evasion” endures, fuelled by controversy over the larger range of programming available from international streaming services. The circumvention tactics that many Australian internet users learned during this period allow them to cross digital borders and view this offshore content with relative ease.

These tactics will likely be familiar to many readers. Tech websites are abuzz with tips and tricks on how to evade geoblocks; DNS routing services like Getflix and UnblockUS have attracted many Australian subscribers; and VPN brands like HideMyAss and Private Internet Access have almost become household names. A complex informal apparatus for accessing digital content has become normalised among the early adopters and TV junkies who drive consumer technology adoption in Australia. In these circles, VPN- and proxy-enabled streaming has become a mainstream pastime – the polite alternative to online piracy.

Early adopters are brazen about their circumvention. Most argue that they have a right to access content if it is not available legally and in a timely fashion, or if they feel they have to pay too much for it. But these consumer issues have become folded into a wider set of policy debates concerning Australia’s economic future and national self-image. Geoblocking and circumvention have attracted the attention of parliamentarians, competition regulators, consumer groups and rights-holders, and have overlapped with discussions around copyright protection, global governance and tax evasion. In other words, they are trigger points for a wider conversation about Australia’s place in the world.

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