In the wake of the controversy around Eleven Sports’ intentional breach of the English Football Association’s (FA) longstanding blackout restriction on UK broadcasters, which was subsequently rescinded, geolocation-based security and digital content protection specialist GeoGuard has put the blackout to the test in terms of seeing how easy (or hard) it would be to circumvent it by using a VPN to spoof its location.
According to GeoGuard, the results are not good for the FA or for any sports league or team that relies on a territorial pricing model for their broadcast revenues.
Eleven Sports broadcasts live La Liga games, along with other football leagues, in multiple countries. GeoGuard 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,” reports GeoGuard.
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 or for as little as £2/month, allowing a UK fan easily to circumvent Eleven Sport’s simple IP-based geolocation protection by pretending to be from a country outside the UK.
The practice of utilising a VPN to bypass territorial restriction has become increasingly commonplace, especially for live sports streams, with research by Global Web Index suggesting that as many as one-in-four Internet users utilise a VPN service on a regular basis – primarily to access restricted content.
GeoGuard suggests that 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 regard 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,” it says.
“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,” it asserts.
GeoGuard notes that in 2015, Netflix famously had 30 million subscribers from countries where it 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$241 million in 2017 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,” warns GeoGuard. “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,” it advises.
In terms of the impact on the game in England, GeoGuard suggests that losing actual attending fans to their games (by having football 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 rights holders such as the Premier League make 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,” warns GeoGuard.
“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,” it notes. “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,” it concludes.