A new report recommends Australians use technology to bypass costly local businesses and access cheaper content such as movies and TV shows from overseas.
The Federal Government’s Competition Policy Review draft report, released on Monday, outlined a host of plans that would benefit consumers. Chief among them was using VPNs, or virtual private networks, which allows users to trick an overseas computer into thinking they’re in that country and pay the lower international price.
Consumer advocacy group Choice welcomed the recommendations.
“The report essentially says that the problem with us paying higher prices for content like video and music and TV shows is a competition issue,” explains chief executive officer Alan Kirkland.
“That’s because the local market is shielded from competition by our intellectual property laws.”
Dr Mark Gregory, senior lecturer in electrical and computer engineering at RMIT University, also endorsed the report.
“I believe that Australians should use every means at their disposal to bypass the ‘Australia Tax’.”
What is a VPN?
“A virtual private network connection is a tunnel between two computers so it’s a way of connecting to the internet at a distant location rather than appearing from your home,” Dr Gregory says.
So a VPN might be used to connect to your home network while you’re away to transfer files. In the framework of the content debate though, a VPN can allow you to fool an overseas server into thinking that you’re surfing the web from a different country.
What is it used for?
Bu the technology has entered the mainstream as a central part of the ongoing battle over the inflated price of Australian content.
VPNs are used as a tool to dodge geo-blocking by many Australians fed up with paying more for the same content.
A recent investigation by Choice found Australian customers pay up to 400 per cent more than overseas viewers for some TV shows.
Geo-blocking involves denying access to content based on geographic location by using copyright and licensing restrictions.
It’s a popular strategy used by companies to set different prices for content around the globe.
“Geo-blocking is where an overseas website recognises you’re coming from Australia and either blocks you from accessing certain services or applies a higher price simply based on the fact you’re coming from Australia, Mr Kirland says.
Is it legal?
Using a VPN is perfectly legal as long as no laws are being broken.
Internet streaming giant Netflix already has a reported 200,000 users from Australia accessing its service through a VPN.
“Most certainly it’s not illegal to use virtual private networks to get around geo-blocking,” Dr Gregory declares.
“[But] advocating using virtual private networks to get around the Australia tax is not the same as using virtual private networks to break the law and download copyright or other protected material.”
Mr Kirkland says it’s currently “a bit of a legal grey area” but that consumers had every right to adopt the practice.
“If you’re using a VPN to actually pay for content overseas and access it legitimately then there’s very little risk for you as a consumer.
“At most you might be breaching the terms of service, the contract between you and the content provider that says it only provides services to people based in the US. But the legal consequences of that are very limited.”
Where can you get one?
Mr Kirland says it’s relatively easy to get a VPN these days and more and more people are using them, yet many people still find them an overwhelming process.
According to Choice, some popular options found online include TorVPN, LogMeIn Hamachi, Hotstpot Shield, HMA, IPVanish, and Overplay.
What does the future hold?
Mr Kirkland welcomed draft recommendations within the Harper review and says it’s pleasing to see a focus on axing the ‘Australia tax’.
“Choice has been saying for a long time that the problem with high prices for content in Australia is a competition issue and we were thrilled to see the panel endorse that.”
Dr Gregory believes it’s a step in the right direction but more needs to be done.
“Yes it’s a win for consumers but really it puts the spotlight on the government to do more to break down this ‘Australia tax’ and make it a level playing field.”