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Internet closed, due to World Cup (and not only)

I don't care very much about sport. I like it as a social promoter, gathering together with friends, BBQ and beers, having fun and the like. I like it as an educational tool, a metaphor of life, something to talk about fairness, team working, struggling for achieving results, accepting defeats, respecting the opponents, a bit of healthy life style.

But, apart from all of that, I usually am more inclined to care about general news, especially on European affairs. That's why I really hate that, when I go to the web site of TVs, during worldwide sports events, instead of the news bulletin I can only see "Sorry, but due to copyright reasons, we can only offer this programme to users residing in Italian/British/Somewhere territory". Even when it's not world cup or olympics time, many restrictions apply: you move from Italy to UK and you cannot see live broadcasting of Italian TV on Internet. You go back to Italy and most of BBC (live or recorded programmes on iPlayer) is unaccessible.[World map of Internet Censorship, from Wikipedia]

Good reasons why this is unfair

The official reason for that is that they've paid copyright royalties for the national territory only. Well, when will they decide to pay for the whole European territory, or to find a way to remove such anachronistic restrictions? What about, for example, a British who, after having paid the TV licence, has to go for 3 months abroad and hence can no longer access its national TV by means of sites like TV Catch Up? Why don't they at least provide a mean to access on line TV in a IP-independent way? It would be quite fairer, even because the link between a particular geographic area and the Internet address of a connection (IP), is rather debatable: I remember a few Italian Internet providers in Italy using carriers and IPs located in UK, as well as UK providers linked to US connections.

More importantly, what about the European Union and the European market? So many politicians tell us all the time that free trading and free circulation of goods in Europe are good things (OK, not so many in UK, but they know that, even if they don't say it). True. A bit less true when work is treated as skin trade, but that's another story. So, why are the copyright holders allowed to subdivide the markets in Europe? Why can't the same sports programme be seen everywhere in the European market? And why on hearth can't I know the news, what happens around my continent, just because they're being playing soccer or someone doesn't want to find better solutions? Although I don't know the legal details, to me logics says all that is not so much European. That you have no mean to know what happens outside your courtyard doesn't favour European unitary spirit at all. And, contrary to common opinion, we need it a lot in these hard global times.

OK, let's fight them back a bit

All that said, I was pissed enough to decide to try to do something. I already knew some of the most popular solutions you can find with Google. Probably the most famous is the one about HTTP proxies. Roughly, your browser connects to a web service by means of another connection, a "proxy". If the proxy is in your desired country, that should do the trick. Well, not so easy. I've made many tries with the endless lists of proxies you can find around. Most of them are slow and unreliable. I even have a server in Italy, where I am free to use something like Tinyproxy over SSH tunnelling. In such a setting, my provenance is quite hidden. But not enough. I don't know the details, but the problem is the proxy lets the final server know the IP you start from. So, in my attempts, I was eventually blocked. They're are not so stupid.

In short, no proxy. What you actually need is to present yourself with an Internet address that is actually registered in the country required by your site (server) of interest. I will save you the technicalities, by just saying the the only practical way to do that is being able to join a (sub)network that serves the right Internet addresses (IPs) and hence produces the result of making your connection appear as if you are in the right place. That is: Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

A cheap way to do that would be, in theory, Tor. Tor (and the onion routing that it uses) can be considered as a sort of "peer-to-per VPN", in practice you can choose which country you're interested in and all your traffic is routed by another Tor user, which is residing in that country. More precisely, as I said, by a user who is assigned an address registered in that country. Tor is a nice idea, but forget you can use it for high throughput  applications, such as video streaming. It has actually been designed to help those countries where censorship doesn't allow to freely access and circulate Internet contents, especially contents coming from "evil" western democracies. So, it may be useful if you're in China and you want to read/spread news about the Falun Gong movement, but it doesn't help much if you want to see videos on a similar or any other topic (neither does it protect you much against police investigations and, possibly, imprisonment. Yes, I know, there are much more serious problems than the one I am talking about). There is another reason that affects that: home connections are often based on ADSL, where "A" stands for asymmetric: you've a lot of speed when you watch and download videos, you're a snail when you have to send something. You're sending something when you're relaying web page traffic for a foreigner, you would send a lot if, for instance, you ran your video streaming service, with contents produced by you, or maybe by your neighbourhood committee or something. With the asymmetric ADSL you cannot do that in practice. It's not by chance: despite other DSLs exists, they sold us connectivity, with consumers in their minds, not citizens who are aware of the democratic potential of ICTs. And we have accepted that, without even knowing. Something to think about...

Back to the little problem of on line TV censorship, we said: no proxies, no Tor. So, what we are left with, is true VPN, provided by means of serious servers with fast (symmetric) speed. Something that is based on applications like OpenVPN. Well, you already know it: there is no such free lunch. There are many VPN service providers, many of them let you to choose which IPs you'll be assigned, ie: which country you will be able to pretend you are in. But they are not free. For a decent quality of service, you've to pay 50€/year or more (typically 100-150€). Which is not so much, if you're really interested in being unlocked from the geo-IP discriminations. Few days ago, when I discovered the World cup trick, I eventually decided to buy one of such services. So far it has worked pretty well, I could even choose to have it for one month only (maybe they're aware about the way sports events affect on line TV...). I won't tell you the details about such services. I don't want that the IPs of such VPN providers are too quickly added to firewall filters. As a minimum, they deserve to work a little. Write me if you'e interested in such information. Or google it.

Am I happy, eventually?

Well, I've solved (at least for the moment) my little problem, but I am not completely happy yet. The fact is that these private hackings leave the general issue untouched. If someone with expertise stumble upon here, I'd like to know more on what, if anything, can be done to improve this situation. Like legal actions, especially at the level of European institutions.

Indeed, there is much more.

This book clearly explains that, because there are illiberal countries, there are many different Internets around the world, with different contents accessible, more or less free. What they don't say much is that censorship exists in the “free world” too, only subtler and dirtier.

Take web sites that make videos available: most of them use the same approach of YouTube, that is: you can only play their videos with a web browser (no matter they are not “theirs” but “ours”), typically inside the frame of a Flash plug-in. Out of technicalities: they decide when you can watch the videos we've uploaded, not you. You cannot download them, you cannot play them off line or on the go, ie: from your smart phone. They haven't done it yet (not extensively at least), but it's easy to imagine "you cannot watch it again unless you pay". This is already grimly happening in the field of e-books and e-book readers: as the recent outrageous Kindle episode has proven, geeky readers believe to buy e-books, but actually they don't, because, contrary to traditional paper-printed publications, the digital stuff you've regularly paid can be removed from your reader at any time, ie: stolen back by those you have paid, at their discretion. In addition, no borrowing, no gifts to friends, no equivalent of book crossing. Consumerism: you buy a temporary right to consume, not to own something that you will preserve and use the way you want. Even worse: imagine the footage of some politician scandal goes on line, but later the mighty is mighty enough to have it removed? Likely it will disappear, like a fading memory. Oh yes, there are download tools for YouTube, but often they're for geeks, normal people don't even realise how much, how many rights of theirs they're giving away by relying so much on main stream video sites. Related to that, certain techniques, like the DRM used in the BBC iPlayer, allows for far stricter control.

The worst is probably happening with the hardware, that is: vendor lock-in for devices like mobile phones and alike. Worse than being trapped by software you don't know and nobody can change/improve, or trapped in the closeness of data formats. Now, for example in emerging solutions for the mobile devices market, you can only use what the hardware the vendor decides. This is the base for further control of what you eagerly pay to have. In fact, in such solutions typically neither content providers nor software developers are free to distribute their creations, the vendor decides, the vendor wins, the vendor rules, how iCool!

Indeed, things are complicated. Smart phones, social networking, video and photo sharing, web sites and blogs set up in minutes: we have all sort of opportunities. Unfortunately, it's difficult to use them with awareness and exploit them to truly fulfil yourself, your social life and your freedom. Which is not exactly just the freedom to buy. To buy and use only and all what they decide and at the price they want. Which risks to become even the air you breath. And not exactly for a cheap price.

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