It’s worrying that the Singapore government is reviewing the legality of virtual private networking (VPN) technology here, citing copyright concerns as a reason.
At the heart of the issue is whether people who use the technology to watch TV programmes and movies meant for overseas markets are deemed to be infringing the copyright of content owners.
If you ask consumers, they’d say it’s perfectly legit to watch Netflix shows meant for the United States, given the meagre selection in Singapore. After all, they still pay Netflix; they are not pirates.
What about the folks who own the rights and want to carve out the world into neat geographical regions to maximise profits? Of course, anything that messes with their business model has to be fought against.
Consumers don’t play by their rules any more, and they know it. Hours after each Game of Thrones episode is out, pirates would have already shared it online and everyone in the office would seem to have watched it even before it was telecast in Singapore.
But VPN technology is not piracy. It just allows people to unblock this geographically parcling-up of the world that the content industry is keen to preserve. Many users of VPN services are paying customers of streaming services, ranging from Netflix to Amazon Prime.
So, VPNs have always been a grey area, if you ask lawyers. By accessing such services, you’re often deemed to be buying parallel imports. No, these are not stolen goods you’re buying, but they are not sold by the local distributor.
Do you have a right to use these goods? Well, in a shipping hub like Singapore, you’d say yes, of course. Otherwise, so many of the goods sold here would be deemed illegal if the country outlawed parallel imports.
However, the authorities seem to have heard the other side of the argument, which is that these goods (or services) cannot be deemed legal because consumers have no right to consume them, even if they had paid for them.
Indeed, by using tools such as VPN, they would have circumvented a copyright protection measure, as the argument goes.
The same concept has been established in game consoles – today, you cannot plug in a gizmo or install software to defeat the copyright technology in an Xbox or Playstation even though you had paid for the game console.
If the authorities buy this argument, no doubt lobbied for by players with a lot to lose to an unblocked market, then they will have come to a decision that will limit choices in Singapore. They will also redraw the line when it comes to parallel imports.
There’s precedent here. Not very long ago, Singapore was under pressure to do something similar to DVD players.
Before it signed a free trade agreement with the United States in 2003, motion picture copyright owners argued that people here should not be allowed to play (Region 1) DVDs meant for the US with their multi-region players.
That, they argued would be circumventing a copyright protection measure, which was illegal.
Fortunately, the Singapore authorities disagreed. It would have been absurd for multi-region DVD players to be banned just so that movie studios can neatly divide up the market for themselves.
Region coding wasn’t meant to protect the content, but merely to segregate markets, the Singapore side argued. And rightly so.
Not many Singapore movie buffs knew it then, but they could have been stuck with Region 3 discs meant for the region, instead of playing back DVDs bought from Amazon.
Consumers won’t be so lucky this time if the Singapore government bowed to the pressure exerted once again by such lobby groups. It has to apply the same principle it did with the DVD region-coding situation.
The geographical blocking of users for video streaming services is to enable copyright owners to market their content to each region for the highest profit.
Consumers who have paid for a service should not be seen to be tempering with copyright protection measures. At worst, a user can be locked out of a service because he has breached the terms and conditions when he signed up.
It cannot be that he is seen as a pirate, like someone who is trying to unlock his Xbox or Playstation to play pirated games. Or that he is downloading pirated content from a peer-to-peer site.
As a market observer noted in a Straits Times report today, there are already existing measures that content owners can take to enforce their rights.
“Why even consider banning VPN if remedies are available? To help save legal costs for copyright holders at huge public cost for Singapore?” said Michael Tan, the director of an IT company.
And let’s not forget that VPN itself is a technology used largely for corporate users, not couch potatoes trying to view Netflix.
The technology, first of all, came about because travelling executives wanted to connect back to their company servers over the vast Internet, which was by and large a Wild Wild West of online servers.
By encrypting the data as it travelled through the Net, a user can keep away prying eyes while exchanging data securely.
Sure, VPN is used to unblock video content today. But restricting or outlawing its use will surely set Singapore back years as a business, financial and technology hub.
How will corporate users connect remotely without VPN? Even in China, you can access Facebook and other banned sites through a VPN service.
That will surely weigh heavily on the authorities when they sift through views from the public in the next two months. They also have to consider the unintended consequence of more, not less, piracy.
Do they ban or curtail a technology that has allowed parallel imports so far, knowing full well that such a decision could drive people to go back to downloading or streaming from pirated sites again?