Putting borders on the internet

One of the things that makes the internet as enormously resourceful, entertaining and helpful as it is is the fact that it is a truly worldwide phenomenon that anybody, from anywhere can use and create. The internet can be seen as one of the fastest ways of delivering globalisation as it allows people to learn and experience other cultures from afar in a way that could never have been imagined before. It is this free exchange of information and entertainment that makes it what it is. But that is slowly coming under threat.

The crackdown on internet freedom has largely come from television, music and film studios that have lost billions of dollars over the years to internet pirating. The ease at which you can share information online has been a double-edged sword for them, as while it is far easier for consumers to buy their products it is also far easier for people to get those products by circumventing the legal means of buying them. It’s a catch-22 that is almost impossible to solve, as while copyright legislation (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US and the European Union Copyright Directive in the EU) and the technologies to combat the practice improve, so do the abilities of internet users to get around the system.

Netflix was one of the bastions of internet freedom until recently. They charge for their service, and of course they should be able to, but they always had a laissez-faire approach to the way in which people viewed their content. Due to copyright legislation, each different version of Netflix (that is the shows/films available to users in different countries) has a completely different selection. Now this was not a problem, as savvy internet users could easily bypass these restrictions with VPNs and proxy servers. Netflix didn’t seem to mind, even offering advice to you if you access the site from a “different” location on what you should expect. Netflix has also been a company that has encouraged multiple uses of one account on their service, a method often used to bypass buying multiple subscriptions.

With their old approach, Netflix did their customer service right and seeing as they were providing a quality service for a relatively low cost it has quickly become one of the main ports-of-call for millions on the internet. In the US, Netflix accounts for a whopping 35% of the country’s total bandwidth every night as people stream their favourite shows and films. People have switched over from TV to Netflix as the incredible depth of content is much more engaging, cheaper and flexible than traditional TV. Although other services exist out there, no-one does the new internet viewing experience quite like them.

But in the last month, Netflix has taken the decision (at the behest of major film studios, most prominently Sony Pictures) to begin to ban users who are circumventing the country restrictions. While from a copyright standpoint it can be understood, the way in which people are being victimised for trying to access content via a paid service that these studios will be benefitting from is definitely damaging. Netflix has insisted that their policies regarding VPN use have not changed, but the evidence on social media and online is beginning to mount up. The problem has existed with other services for a while now, including the major US service Hulu which began blocking VPN access from last April.

It might seem counter-intuitive to begin with, but the reason why the studios are forcing Netflix to take action is because they are losing money from it. Studios negotiate different deals with broadcasters around the world, including Netflix, to air their content – and they are out to get the best deal they can. So when a deal is undercut by people using the “wrong” Netflix then the people buying the content get unhappy and pay less next time around. An example of this, although one that hasn’t had much time to come to pass, is that Friends became available on the US Netflix on New Year’s Day. Friends is loved here in the UK perhaps even more than it was in the US, and that’s why Comedy Central will have paid a large sum of money to the show’s distributors Warner Brothers to air the show from 2011. But of course, if people leave Comedy Central to watch the episodes they want to on Netflix, then the value of that deal is lowered significantly and next time around Warner Brothers won’t make nearly as much money.

Netflix’ reputation as being on the side of the viewer may well take a hit from this. We know well that users will go elsewhere and pirate shows and films that aren’t available online, as Game of Thrones has once again topped the year-end most pirated show rankings – mainly because of a combination of its’ popularity and it’s broadcaster HBO’s very limited release of the show. If Game of Thrones was available to stream online via a legitimate site, even at a cost of several dollars/pounds per episode, it would be a massive money-spinner and would stop people from accessing it illegally. Even now in 2015, it shows that traditional production studios and broadcasters do not fully understand the scope and power of the internet. Combating piracy is important to protect their intellectual property rights, but doing so in a way that actively punishes users and allows them little option to access the content legally is definitely not proving effective.

Putting up these borders on the internet is something that many producers would like to see, but it could have a hugely detrimental impact on the internet if it is allowed to continue. Governments around the world are increasingly trying to regulate the internet with the SOPA legislation in the US being roundly condemned, and the recent legislation on porn here in the UK also coming in for plenty of criticism. These multi-billion dollar companies have tremendous sway with politicians, and it may just be a matter of time before they use that influence to leash the internet in a way that benefits them but not the public. And that’s a dangerous thing.

It’s time for governments and producers to take a more pragmatic approach to copyright, by which they accept that they’ll never keep ahead of the curve but by providing enough incentive for people to buy things above board. The EU has taken the commendable step of entrusting Julia Reda MEP, a member of Germany’s Pirate Party (a party set up to protect consumer’s rights on the internet), to draft new EU copyright legislation for this year. Instead of being driven by corporate interests, this bill will balance the rights of consumers across the EU with the rights of these companies to profit from their work – something that is the ideal.

I think that there is a definite place for making money from TV shows and films on the internet. The Netflix model has been so successful that thousands have chosen it instead of TV, and its original shows such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are performing phenomenally well critically and commercially. If studios can accept the new world in which we live and make their content available on paid services such as Netflix they can continue to make money. The less incentive there is to pirate movies, the more people will pay – and that will result in more revenues for these companies, whilst giving users a great service. If they can do this via unified services that can be accessed worldwide, then it will truly be better for everyone. Then we don’t have to lose the tremendous benefits of the internet in other areas such as education and commerce, where some of the people in the world’s poorest countries are able to carve out a life for themselves and their countrymen with this wonderful new opportunity.

The internet’s growth kept it under the cover of darkness for a long time, but now when it pervades modern life more so than even the great staple of the last 50 years, television, it is little wonder that action is beginning to be taken to curb it. We’ve just got to hope that the sheer willpower and manpower of the denizens of the internet can overcome this threat to a modern and global world that we can shape and create ourselves.

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