Charlie Johnson
Charlie Johnson 25 February 2019

Managing digital rights: combating the growing VPN threat in an age of portability

Virtual private networks (VPNs) can be perplexing. On the one hand, they are frequently harnessed as a gateway to access restricted content and therefore present a threat. But on the other, they can offer a means for individuals to increase online security and privacy.

With the risks attached to blanket banning all VPNs and the issues associated with portability, broadcasters are in a difficult content control situation where the need to manage digital rights access in different regions must be balanced with the requirements of users. 

So what can be done to find a solution that fits all and mitigates the VPN threat? 

Protecting digital film and TV content

To start, let’s assess the issue in greater detail. With 5.5 billion viewers set to stream video and music via the mobile web alone by 2020, there is a huge appetite for digital entertainment. The popularity of streaming for both traditional broadcasters and digital-only services has experienced sizeable growth, with UK subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) rising by 24% annually. But as interest in online film and TV content has increased, so have the number of users trying to access content not available in their region using proxies, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and TORs to circumvent restrictions.

For broadcasters, it’s vital to be mindful of potentially suspicious activity and implement measures that ensure geographic licensing rules are upheld. But it is also important for measures not to inadvertently block connections from genuine paying users, who happen to connect via a VPN.   

To block or not to block

Adoption of proxies and VPNs is on the rise: in a GlobalWebIndex survey late last year, 25% of internet users had used a VPN in the previous four weeks. Indeed, usage is especially high in the Southern Asian region: with monthly access in India at 38%, as compared to 17% in Europe. Yet while a sizeable portion of VPN deployment is intended to bypass restrictions on content — 27% at last count — this isn’t always the case. The same survey also found that 25% of users rely on VPNs to communicate with friends or family around the globe, and 77% also buy digital content on a monthly basis.

As a result, care must be taken when limiting VPN connections. If content providers take a blanket approach in which anyone using a VPN is blocked, it is likely they will also deny access to valid viewers. To safeguard profitability, quality, and subscription value, content providers must find a more intelligent way to separate genuine viewers from illicit users, and prevent damage caused by unauthorised access.

A considered approach to content control

One of the most effective methods to evaluate viewer connection characteristics is the analysis of IP addresses. Typically, this is achieved by using country-level data to determine whether access to content is permissible.. However, the growth in circumvention has caused broadcasters to start rethinking this approach and looking beyond purely location.

Any connection that is identified as a proxy or VPN can be evaluated in further detail against a database to determine what sort of connection is in operation — one adopted simply for safer surfing or one more often associated with circumvention. High-quality IP data should identify traffic passing through hosting centres, DNS, and exit and relay nodes, to help distinguish between good and bad proxy or VPN access. Using this information, broadcasters can immediately flag suspicious connections and, if they are identified as illegitimate, remove service access or submit them for internal review. IP data can also provide connection information such as connection speed, and device type, which can be used to optimise the customer experience.

As VPNs continue to cause concern, the global knee-jerk reaction is simply preventing usage. Earlier this year, China’s official ban came info effect and just last month, Egypt tightened VPN rules. But if businesses are to ensure legitimate customers can access the content they pay for, with or without a VPN, they must take a different route.  By using comprehensive IP-based proxy databases — which are regularly refreshed and cover the entire web — broadcasters and content services can confidently manage geographic rights and limit circumvention, in real time.  All key to reducing false positives, limiting revenue lost to illicit viewing that diminishes the bottom line, and keeping customers happy.

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