Say you want to watch that Saturday Night Live sketch you missed last week. You know – the funny one.
You're in Toronto, sitting in front of your powerful new computer screen. You go to Hulu.com, the digital streaming site owned by U.S. media giants NBC and Fox. It's like a big video jukebox filled with all your favourite shows, everything from 30 Rock and American Idol to Heroes and Fringe, available on demand 24 hours a day.
You click on a clip and up pops a stark black-and-white warning: "We're sorry, currently our video library can only be streamed within the United States." There's more, including a line about Hulu being committed to making its content available worldwide. But for now, step back, Johnny Canuck – you've been geo-blocked.
Geo-blocking – or geo-gating, as the networks prefer to call it – is how content providers like Hulu, and even Canadian networks like CTV and Global, restrict access to their online videos outside the territories where they hold the rights.
Except (shh!) there's an easy way around it. You don't have to buy a grey- or black-market satellite dish as you did in the old days to see HBO or ESPN. You don't need to send cheques to a cousin in Albany to cover your dodgy satellite bill.
Just download one program to your computer and before you can say "cross-border cloaking," Hulu can't tell who-loo they're dealing with, or what country you're from, letting you sneak into their store.
As many as a half-million Canadians, among 5.5 million Web surfers worldwide each month, are already using AnchorFree.com to do just that, according to David Gorodyansky, founder and CEO of the northern California company. AnchorFree offers an ad-supported virtual private network called Hotspot Shield that, in addition to boosting PC security, allows Canadians to view geo-blocked content. Once installed (a process that takes about a minute), the shield prevents content providers from knowing what country you are in.
"Our job is not to promote Hulu or offer them in regions where they're not available," says Gorodyansky. "We're just enabling people to be private and secure online. What people choose to do once they're private and secure is kind of their business."
AnchorFree makes money from ads posted at its site, including a banner that adds itself to your browser while the service is in use. Up to now, Gorodyansky says he has not received a cease-and-desist complaint from Hulu or anyone else.
There are other sites designed to guide Canadians and others around geo-blocked content, including SurfTheChannel.com. It acts like a search engine for video content, pointing users to the show they want to see via links to YouTube, Tudou (YouTube's Chinese equivalent), The WB, ABC Family and even Canadian sources like CTV.ca.
So then why not go straight to CTV.ca, asks Stephan Argent, CTV's vice-president of digital media. Argent says 337 million videos were streamed on the network's website in 2008, including CTV's popular TV hits Grey's Anatomy, Mad Men and So You Think You Can Dance Canada.
While it's hard to compare online and TV audience numbers, Argent says some of the younger-skewed shows CTV has licensed for Canada, like The CW's Gossip Girl, are more popular online than on TV.
Globaltv.com also offers Canadians 24-hour on-demand access to its TV hits, including 24, Family Guy and, yes, Saturday Night Live. Global started by streaming Survivor in 2006, and now offers 75 shows online (if you include its specialty-channel offerings such as Holmes on Homes and Trailer Park Boys).
As with CTV.ca, Global's clips or "webisodes" have a 15- or 30-second commercial attached, but that's still better than the ad-to-show ratio on broadcast TV.
So Argent argues Canadians have no reason to use reach-around products like AnchorFree to access geo-blocked U.S. sites. "Given the choice between doing something illegal that takes effort and a legitimate, high-quality product ... that's easy to use, I think the majority of people are going to choose the latter."
One current advantage of hopping the border and surfing content at Hulu or CBS-owned TV.com rather than, say, CTV or Global is choice. TV.com (geo-blocked in Canada) has the largest TV-show library on the Web, with 38,000 videos available at the click of a mouse. Besides current hits, it offers many classic shows from as far back as 1941. The top three oldies are currently The Three Stooges Show, The Twilight Zone and I Love Lucy. Worth using a geo-block "shield" to access? As Curly would say, "Soitenly!"
Canadian network sites, to date, have no such archived content. "The Americans have had a bit of a head start," concedes Pary Bell, Global's vice-president of content. "They can start looking at their Starsky & Hutches and CHiPs. We also have that opportunity to ... look at the back catalogue but, first and foremost, our largest demand is for what's hot right now."
But is using easy-to-access services such as AnchorFree illegal? Relax, says Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and media law expert (also a Toronto Star columnist). While he acknowledges that peeking across the border at content from a restricted zone "is effectively breach of contract," he feels that doing so is "unlikely to create any kind of liability on the part of the user."
Geist says networks and various rights holders are more likely to try to come up with technical ways to stop surfers from looking past their border zones. "One way to do that is to try to identify AnchorFree users specifically, or whatever the proxy service happens to be, and block anyone using the proxy."
The problem is that there are so many ways to access content nowadays – including the illegal ones. "Many of the content owners recognize that you're better off embracing the opportunity to monetize that traffic and that interest, rather than trying to set up barriers," says Geist.
Even the "gatekeepers" – the network executives trying to play by the rules and honour rights restrictions – acknowledge that the biggest gate may be the public's belief that the World Wide Web should be free, and barrier-free.
"It's a generational thing," says Michael Goldsmith, director of original content at Teletoon, which gets hundreds of emails from American kids frustrated at being geo-blocked from Canadian shows like Total Drama Action.
"Young people feel somewhat entitled to view content that's been made," says Goldsmith. "They know that it's been made and it exists. They have a really hard time grasping why they shouldn't be able to go online and just view it when they want to view it."
The dilemma, says Goldsmith, is that Canadian producers make money selling online rights to their shows in other regions. "We don't want the Americans to see it," says Goldsmith, "not because we don't want them to see it, but because it could jeopardize a business deal that's important to the health of a good producer."
Not every Canadian cares about such considerations, and programmers know it. Global's Pary Bell, a self-described "child of the Internet," understands that "it can be very frustrating to everyone who doesn't like the notion of territories in the online world." Maintaining territorial rights is not as easy online as it is with the "walled garden" of television.
So far, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission – which may soon have to change its name to the Canadian Media Commission – has not weighed in on geo-blocking. That will change with new media hearings set to begin in a few weeks.