NZ media companies order ISPs to stop 'global mode' access

Lightbox, MediaWorks, SKY, and TVNZ have threatened to sue local ISPs and companies that allow customers to bypass geoblock restrictions on services such as Netflix.

New Zealand internet service providers (ISPs) that offer so-called "global mode" virtual private network (VPN) access to geoblocked media services like Hulu included in their broadband plans are being told to cease and desist by media companies.

ISPs like Slingshot offer ISP-side access to sites based outside of New Zealand that are geoblocked from access, such as Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix US, and BBC iPlayer.

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"Ever tried to go to a website, only to be told you can't see it because you live in New Zealand? We think that's bizarre, and it's why we have introduced Global Mode," Slingshot states on its website.

"Global Mode is a brilliant service that lets you visit a range of sites that are normally blocked to people from New Zealand. And it's free for Slingshot broadband customers. We think it's pretty awesome -- and lets you surf and view the sites that you want to see."

Slingshot said it has opened up access to over two dozen websites for its customers.

But the future of Global Mode is uncertain, after Slingshot, Orcon, Bypass, and other ISPs were targeted by media companies Lightbox, MediaWorks, SKY, and TVNZ for alleged breach of copyright.

The companies have sent letters to the ISPs requesting them to cease offering Global Mode and similar services in New Zealand due to the alleged breach of copyright.

"We pay considerable amounts of money for content rights, particularly exclusive content rights. These rights are being knowingly and illegally impinged, which is a significant issue that may ultimately need to be resolved in court in order to provide future clarity for all parties involved," the companies said in a statement.

"This is not about taking action against consumers; this is a business-to-business issue and is about creating a fair playing field."

It comes as Netflix last week launched in Australia and New Zealand. Customers who have been using VPNs and other similar services to access the US content can simply switch off that service to be able to access local libraries, but there are reports that the Australian store houses almost 5,000 fewer titles than the US store.

This figure has not been confirmed by Netflix.

No Australian ISP offers a similar Global Mode service. When asked about it before his departure to NBN Co, Internode founder and then-managing director Simon Hackett talked down the potential for such a service to be launched in Australia, because the ISP would be held liable if a company like Netflix began blocking access through a so-called global mode.

"Let's imagine that Internode fielded such a service, and, six months later, having got a great name for it, and having had people sign up because of it, the service then suddenly stopped working for major content services like Netflix, as they caught up with us doing this ... and they would catch up with us precisely because it got popular, and hence because it got us noticed," he said.

"Then we'd wind up being crucified by, well, by you guys, as examples of customers who have signed up 'just because of this'. Customers who would then say that we touted ourselves as being the ISP of choice because of this."

Netflix's Cliff Edwards, director of corporate communications and technology, told ZDNet in March that he believes customers would move away from using VPNs as the company began to get a single, global library with its content available in all regions.

"VPNs are going to be a historical footnote for a lot of people, because as you bring all of the content catalogues into parity, there is no need to go to another country to watch a particular service," he said.

The Australian government has introduced legislation into parliament that would allow rights holders to get an injunction to force ISPs to block websites that are used to infringe on copyright. It is unclear at this stage whether VPN services similar to global mode would be caught up under the legislation.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that he doesn't believe VPN use to be a breach of copyright law in Australia.