Understanding Geo-blocking: watch whatever you want, when you want

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Understanding Geo-blocking: watch whatever you want, when you want

There’s a whole wide world of entertainment out there – but you’ve got to know how to get access To it first. Adam Turn investigates.

DISCLAIMER: Geoblocking and the circumventing of geographical restrictions raises a number of legal issues. This article discusses techniques and applications which potentially may be used to unblock geographical restrictions; however, we make no comment or endorsement on the legality of the techniques and applications discussed in the article or the legality of any particular uses which readers may make of these techniques and applications. Readers should form their own view on these legal issues. Readers should also be aware that the service providers mentioned in the article make their services available on certain terms and conditions  which users must agree to, and which contain obligations and restrictions on how the service may be used. Readers should familiarise themselves with the terms of use of any particular service.


It’s frustrating to watch from the sidelines as American viewers enjoy unfettered access to Netflix and Hulu while the British gorge themselves on BBC iPlayer. Even in the Amazon and iTunes stores, Australians are treated as second-class citizens compared to what people enjoy in other countries.

Visit Netflix or Hulu from Australia and you’ll be turned away due to geo-blocking. But where there’s a will there’s a way and geo-dodging is becoming easier than ever.

But what, exactly, is geo-dodging?

It’s not a new practice, and it’s something that many Australians are doing right now to access content from all over the world. These are users who do not want to resort to actual piracy, and torrent sites that financially harm content creators and publishers. At the same time, however, geo-dodging is a giant legal grey area, and some of the practices undertaken by its practitioners are clearly in violation of the terms of service of some of the companies we are going to talk about.

It should also be mentioned that a lot of geo-blocking techniques will require you to obfuscate your actual address. If the thought of any of these practices make you uncomfortable, then we recommend that you should probably stay away from geo-dodging. However, should you wish to understand just how it’s done, you can safely read along.

Chances are the gadgets already in your lounge room can tap into foreign video services, once you know the tricks of the trade.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to geo-dodging and you can’t be sure that today’s tricks will work tomorrow. Everything that follows is stamped with a big red “Your Mileage May Vary”. It’s a cat and mouse game, so keep an eye on online forums for the latest tips and tricks.

Shut up and take my money!
The secret sauce of geo-dodging is knowing how to pay.

You don’t need a credit card to create a foreign iTunes account. Simply log out of iTunes and switch to a foreign store by clicking on the flag at the bottom right. Now try to download a free app and click Create Apple ID.

This is where a separate gmail account can come in handy, rather than your own email address, especially if yours ends in .au. You’ll also need a legit foreign street address and phone number – a lot of geo-dodgers Google the address of foreign Starbucks outlets, or even use the addresses of friends or relatives. Watch out for sales tax – many geo-dodgers swear by Oregon or Delaware as good options in the US. It’s also worth checking emailed receipts for sales tax.

You don’t need to add a payment method to your iTunes account; you can simply click None and then top up the account with US gift cards. Gift cards for iTunes and practically every other video service online can be bought online, and PriceUSA.com.au is apparently one of the best places to look. Alternatively you can ask travelling friends to stock up for you. Don’t load up your accounts with too much credit, just in case your account becomes disabled. Also keep in mind that even if an ISP offers unmetered iTunes access, it probably doesn’t apply to the US iTunes store.

If you log back into iTunes later and are told “before you can make purchases you must click okay and then verify your payment information”, click None as the payment option, and then Done.
To set up Netflix or Hulu, use the free Hola plugin for Chrome or Firefox to mask your location. Hulu lets you sign up with a gift card and then top up with more gift cards, but Netflix insists on valid credit card details even if you’re using gift cards anyway. Netflix recently relaxed its block on foreign credit cards and an Australian card might just do the trick these days. Some services let you get away with using an Australian credit card if you use your own name and street address with a US state and postcode, so a lot of geo-dodgers experiment. You might get a call or text from your bank when using your card overseas, however. Don’t panic, they’re just checking your card hasn’t been stolen, much like when you use your card overseas while travelling.

You can also create Netflix and Hulu accounts directly from an Apple TV and link them to your US iTunes account. You’re sent emails with your account details so you can also log into other devices. Hulu happily starts its trial with no credit card attached to the iTunes account, but Netflix doesn’t.

Alternatively, you might have luck with a rechargeable pre-paid credit card. Sites such as buyfrompowerseller.com offer pre-paid US Visa cards to set up Netflix and Hulu accounts, although Netflix is cracking down on this. Some people also have luck with Australian pre-paid cards, like a Visa Load&Go purchased from your local Australia Post shop. An online portal gives you the ability to top up the balance on the card, as well as add a mailing address, which can be a favourite foreign Starbucks.

Many US streaming services also accept US PayPal accounts, although you still might need to associate a valid US credit card to the PayPal account. You can create a US PayPal account at paypal.com/us, again with a foreign Starbucks address. You might be able to associate an Australian card using your Starbucks address, or else a pre-paid card using that address. When PayPal asks for US bank account details, log out and then log back in. Now you can use the PayPal account without supplying bank account details.

By way of experiment, Netflix accepted our Australian Visa card but didn’t like the Visa Load&Go, nor would it accept a US PayPal account linked to our Load&Go or Australian AMEX. Hulu didn’t like any of our cards, but accepted US PayPal accounts linked to the Load&Go or to our Australian AMEX. iTunes refused all the cards and PayPal tricks, but you don’t need these to get started.

It was possible to create a new Amazon account with a US address and Amazon Prime accepted our Visa Load&Go for the free 30 day trial, using Valued Cardholder as the name of the card holder, but it knocked back the card when we tried to rent a pay-per-view movie. During our experiments we even managed the same trick with our Australian Amazon account and AMEX card, signing up to the trial and watching the Prime library but unable to pay for rentals.

The trick is to remove your card from the Amazon account, then visit tinyurl.com/3end7d and enter a new address. Press “Save & Continue”, not “Save & Add payment method”, and then make it your default 1-click address. Now log into your Australian Amazon account, visit http://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=3063530011, and email yourself a gift card. Log back into your US Amazon account and redeem the gift card. Now you can rent pay-per-view movies as well as watch Prime subscription movies. When your $79 annual Prime subscription is due after 30 days you can’t pay with gift cards – you must use a credit card. If you reinstate your credit card and Amazon refuses to accept it for the Prime subscription, you’ll need to investigate rechargeable US pre-paid credit card options – perhaps from the likes of buyfrompowerseller.com. It’s possible to cancel your Prime trial and just watch pay-per-view using gift cards.

Cloaking device
A few years ago, the easiest way to bypass geo-blocking was to use a web-based proxy server or to run a foreign-based Virtual Private Network. These days there are much easier ways to convince foreign services into thinking someone’s a local.

There’s a wealth of web-based proxy servers to choose from, such as hidemyass.com, along with browser plugins such as Proxy Switchy and FoxyProxy. Unfortunately content providers are cracking down on proxy servers, plus smooth streaming video relies on the speed of the proxy server’s connection. Another shortcoming is that you can’t enter the proxy server details into most of the devices you’ll want to use to watch internet video on your television.

Virtual Private Networks also act as middlemen, with the added bonus of encrypting all your traffic. You’ll find free VPN services such as Hotspot Shield and VPNBook, along with paid services like WiTopia and StrongVPN. Once again you’re at the mercy of the speed of the VPN. WiTopia offers multiple servers in many countries – servers in large cities are faster but also more likely to be blocked by content providers.

Like a proxy server, you’ll find that you can’t run a VPN client on most home entertainment devices. One workaround is to configure the proxy server or VPN on a computer, then use internet connection sharing to provide internet access to the player. Using a notebook is easiest, connecting to your home network via Wi-Fi and your player via Ethernet or vice versa. Alternatively you might configure the proxy server or VPN on your broadband modem/router to cover every device in your home, or else create a separate Wi-Fi network for geo-dodging.

These tricks might work for you, but the rise of DNS-based geo-dodging services such as Unblock US, UnoTelly and the free Tunlr have made things a lot simpler. For US$4.99 per month, after a seven-day free trial, Unblock US lets your devices bypass geo-blocking by simply changing their DNS settings – something you can easily do on almost any internet-enabled device. It also works at the router-level to cover your entire home. UnoTelly is more flexible if you’re interested in countries outside the US and UK, with plans starting at $3.99 per month after an eight-day trial. We got the most reliable results from UnoTelly, but remember the world of geo-dodging is always in flux.

The Unblock US website offers step-by-step instructions for configuring a range of devices, plus its forums are a great source of up-to-date geo-dodging advice. DNS services offer primary and secondary DNS server addresses, sometimes you’ll get love from one but not the other.

Using UnoTelly we actually managed to trick a Sony BDP-S590 Blu-ray player into loading the Netflix and Hulu apps, while hiding the Australian apps such as Quickflix. There was no need to change the firmware – we simply switched to UnoTelly’s DNS servers and used the Options button to refresh the app list (we got errors using Unblock US). Switching to our ISP’s DNS put things back the way they were. We first got this trick working with the Blu-ray player hooked up to a PC running WiTopia but, when we disabled the VPN, the trick kept working. We haven’t had the chance to explore it further, but it’s a simple trick that just might work on a range of Australian internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players – depending on how they access foreign services.

The ease of use and universal compatibility of DNS-based services makes them our geo-dodging method of choice. They don’t actually reroute your traffic, so you don’t encounter a performance hit. If you change your home IP address, such as by rebooting your modem, paid services such as Unblock US can require you to visit the website using your computer so it can detect your new IP address. If your ISP offers unmetered browser-based access to Australian content such as iView, check whether changing your DNS settings causes it to be metered.

If you only need to enable geo-dodging in your PC’s browser, take a look at the one-click Hola plugin for Chrome and Firefox. This free DNS-based geo-dodging service gives you access to popular sites including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer.

What's on the box?
WINDOWS/MAC
If you simply want to watch videos on your computer, or a Home Theatre PC connected to your television, the Hola browser plugin should serve you well for Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and BBC iPlayer. Try both Chrome and Firefox if you run into problems. If you get no joy, experiment with proxy servers or try a DNS-based service – substituting its DNS servers for your defaults. To change your DNS settings on a Mac, go to System Preferences, Network, Advanced and the DNS tab. On Windows, open Network and Sharing Centre from the Control Panel, click Change Adaptor Settings, right-click on the adapter you’re using to connect to the internet and choose Properties. Right-click Internet Protocol Version 4, choose Properties and then alter the DNS settings. Don’t worry about advanced geo-dodging techniques with iTunes, just switch to your foreign account.

APPLE/ANDROID
There are Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and BBC iPlayer apps for Android and Apple’s iOS but they’re not to be found in the Australian stores. You’ll need a US/UK account to download them from iTunes. Meanwhile running a VPN on Android gives you access to foreign Google Play stores and we got into the US and UK with WiTopia. If the apps don’t show up, try searching for them in the browser, clicking on the link and then opening them in Google Play. Along with BBC iPlayer for Android you’ll need BBC Media Player.

If you can’t find an Android app, or the current version isn’t compatible with your device, consider searching online for APK app files and sideloading them onto your device via email. You’ll need to allow the installation of non-market apps, so proceed at your own risk. Results will vary depending on your particular hardware and OS. We were forced to sideload BBC Media Player, because Google Play wouldn’t let us download it even using WiTopia. We also tried sideloading Amazon Instant Video because it’s supposedly not compatible with our Samsung Galaxy S3, but the app wasn’t stable.

Even with the apps installed on your devices, you still can’t play videos until you cloak your location. Both iOS and Android have built-in VPN clients. We didn’t have much luck bypassing geo-blocking with WiTopia, but such things are always in flux.

We had more luck changing the DNS settings. On an iGadget, dip into the Wi-Fi menu, click the blue arrow next to your network of choice, tap DNS and change the address to that provided by a service such as Unblock US. On an Android 4.0 device, press and hold the required network, tick “Show Advanced Options”, Set IP settings to Static and then scroll down to change the DNS settings. If you’ve got root access, check out apps such as Set DNS and DNS Changer.

Switching between Unblock US and Tunlr’s primary and secondary servers offered mixed results for Netflix and Hulu. UnoTelly’s primary Australian server delivered the goods on iOS and Android for Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer and Amazon (except for our unstable Amazon sideload on Android).

APPLE TV
Along with the iTunes store and YouTube, the little Apple TV also features built-in access to Netflix and Hulu.

You don’t need to bypass geo-blocking to hire movies from the US iTunes store, just go to Settings, iTunes Store and switch to your US account. To use Netflix or HuluPlus, go to Settings, General, Network, then set Configure DNS to manual. Both services initially refused to work with Unblock US but came around after a while. Once again UnoTelly delivered better results. If you’ve got an iGadget, you can also mirror streaming video apps to the Apple TV.

PLAYSTATION 3
Along with local Catch Up TV and its Australian movie rental service, a little geo-dodging trickery lets you access Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video on the PlayStation 3.

Create a new user, select that user and then create a new PSN account with United States set as the country.  Now log into the PlayStation Store, scroll down to apps and install Netflix, HuluPlus and Amazon Instant Video. If this fails, try this workaround from Unblock US: http://support.unblock-us.com/customer/portal/articles/291530.

To alter the PS3’s DNS settings go to Settings, Network Settings, Internet Connection Settings and Custom. Choose Wired or Wireless and then accept all the defaults except for DNS. We had no luck with Unblock US, but all three video services worked with UnoTelly.

Apart from Amazon, you might also hire movies from the US PlayStation Store. It didn’t like our Visa Load&Go card but, through the PSN website, we linked our Australian AMEX card using a US state and postcode. You need to hook up the PS3 to a VPN before it lets you pay and then watch the movie.

XBOX 360
Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video are all available on the Xbox 360, along with Australian Catch Up TV and movie rentals.

Go to Social, sign out and then create a new profile. You should have the option to choose the US as your location. Otherwise create a US account online at http://www.xbox.com/en-US/live/join. After creating your US Xbox Live and Windows Live accounts you can also sign up for Xbox Live Gold, which you’ll need to watch the video services. Online you’ve the option of using a gift voucher, credit card or PayPal (the latter isn’t available if you sign up via the console). We used a US PayPal account linked to our Visa Load&Go without any trouble. We’ve seen a claim that Microsoft can block Australian cards, even for the Australian store, if you try to use them with a US account. It might not be true, but we didn’t want to risk it.

If you created your US Xbox Live account online you can download it to your console – the option is alongside Create a new profile. Once you’re signed in you can download the Netflix and Hulu apps from the Xbox Live marketplace, but not the Amazon app.

Go to Settings, System, Network, Configure and manually change the DNS settings. Test the settings so they take effect and then sign back into your US account. Using UnoTelly’s DNS we could watch Netflix and Hulu but still not download the Amazon app. Once we hooked up the Xbox 360 to a VPN we could download and watch the Amazon app, as well as hire movies from the US Xbox Live marketplace.

BOXEE BOX
There are Netflix and BBC iPlayer apps for the Boxee Box, but you’ll need a VPN to see them unless you want to roll back the firmware.

Unfortunately the option to disable “Hide feeds and applications that cannot be played in your location” is gone from the Boxee Box menus. If you can’t see the foreign apps you want, changing the DNS settings won’t help and we had no luck using app repositories. Thankfully the Boxee Box supports VPNs and proxy servers. Using WiTopia we watched Netflix, and then BBC iPlayer, but they disappear when you disable the VPN. We had more luck by rolling back to firmware 1.1.3.19252 (http://deviceguru.com/boxee-box-firmware-archive/)and temporarily blocking access to “app.boxee.tv/chkupd/” with router-side filtering to prevent it finding the latest firmware. Using UnoTelly’s DNS, without the VPN, we could watch Netflix but not BBC iPlayer.

Conclusion
As the world becomes a smaller and smaller place, thanks to high speed connections and the cultural impact of the internet, it’s plain that content creators and publishers are going to need to address the shift to a global model of media consumption. It’s clear to us that, for now, we’re existing in a liminal state where licence holders want to control distribution, but for little obvious purpose – especially when there is literally no alternative method to consume content in a lot of countries like Australia.

The options for publishers are clear – either open up distribution channels to a wider audience, or continue to suffer the debilitating effects of torrent-based filesharing and piracy.

In the meantime, however, conscientious consumers must judge for themselves how best to proceed. Hopefully, this article has served to at least inform you of the fuller range of options available, along with any inherent risks in the processes.

Multi page
This feature appeared in the May 2013 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine
Copyright © PC & Tech Authority. All rights reserved.
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