Australia: Circumvention Goes Mainstream

Institute of Network Cultures
Publication Type:
Geoblocking and Global Video Culture, 2016, pp. 120 - 128
Issue Date:
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Over the last decade Australia has become an unlikely hotspot of circumvention activity. Frustrated by the high cost and slow delivery of first-release TV and movies from the United States – and by their own self-perceived status as ‘second-class’ media citizens – Australians have taken to offshore streaming with a singular enthusiasm, signing up for VPNs and proxy services and using them to access US Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and BBC iPlayer. Unlike many nations in the Asia-Pacific region, where circumvention has an overtly political dimension, the conversation in Australia has revolved substantially around access to entertainment rather than privacy, surveillance or censorship. Many Australians have acquired a working knowledge of circumvention tools simply because they were unable to watch episodes of their favourite television shows quickly and legally. Take for example Game of Thrones and House of Cards, which have become massively popular in Australia thanks to unauthorised streaming and torrenting. When these shows first aired here they were only available as part of expensive packages with the pay-TV provider Foxtel. In the case of Game of Thrones, episodes were initially screened up to a week after their U.S. premiere (only later did they screen simultaneously, after a subscriber backlash). House of Cards was likewise locked to a pay-TV bundle, as Netflix was unavailable in Australia until 2015 and had sold the rights to Foxtel in the interim. Relatively few Australians watched these shows through the authorised channels, yet everyone seemed to have seen the latest episodes. How? The answer is directly related to the boom in popular circumvention, along with a longstanding national fondness for Bit Torrent. During the last few years Australian tech websites have been 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 Witopia have almost become household names. A complex informal apparatus for accessing digital content has become normalised among the early adopters and TV junkies that drive consumer technology adoption in Australia. In these circles, VPN- and proxy-enabled streaming has become a mainstream pastime – the polite alternative to Bit Torrent. These 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. The Australian conversation on circumvention has been firmly grounded in this discourse of audience rights. But there is more to the story, as in recent years the geoblocking and access questions have become inextricably linked to a wider set of policy debates concerning Australia’s economic future and national self-image. As we will see, geoblocking and circumvention are evolving into first-order political issues, attracting the attention of parliamentarians, competition regulators, consumer groups and rights-holders, and overlapping 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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