It’s that time again: the Winter Olympics have arrived and, with it, all of the pageantry, spectacle and heartbreak that comes along with performing on a global stage. It’s thrilling to watch, especially for those of you living in other countries. I say that because, generally, others countries have better network coverage of the Olympics than what Americans are forced to watch. I use the word “forced” literally: here we have just one option to watch the Olympics: NBC.
In 2011, Comcast — the corporation that owns NBC — paid $4.38 billion for the rights to broadcast the Games in the US from 2014 through 2020. Apparently, it was a good investment, because in 2014, they paid another $7.65 billion for the rights to broadcast all Olympics in the US through 2032. That’s a long time to have a monopoly, but that’s exactly what it is.
Having purchased those rights for billions of dollars, NBC protects their investment by preventing everyone else in the US from televising or streaming any real portion of the Games. This lockdown includes very few privileges for other networks: news networks can’t show more than a few minutes of total video footage from the games and they aren’t permitted to show news conferences while they air. Furthermore, the United States Olympic Committee (or USOC) owns the rights to the Olympic Flag and logos in the US, which prevents all other networks from being able to cover the Olympics without paying a hefty fee. The International Olympic Committee (or IOC) is also known to be quite strict with its intellectual property. As a result, there’s little that non-NBC broadcasters are legally permitted to discuss during one of the world’s great events. The lockdown is so severe, that some newscasters have ranted on air about the absurdity of it all. May I present “Exhibit A”:
The honest truth is this: I wouldn’t be complaining if Comcast and NBC gave Americans great broadcasting during the Olympics, but they don’t. They’ve botched the Olympics coverage in the US for as long as people can remember. They time-delay, won’t put full event replays on the website, and they usually skip events and athletes that are favorites of other nations, choosing instead to focus on those that will generate the most viewers. The negative press this has created is real: Vox has reported on it. So has The Telegraph. And Gawker. Also, Fox News, TechCrunch, and DeadSpin. Oh, and the New York Times. This year’s feedback from the likes of Vanity Fair and from average folks on Reddit isn’t much better. Medium’s Justin Cox 🍩recently wrote about the same crap as well.
Not that I watch TV anyway. I don’t. I cut the cord in 2010, which means that I cancelled my cable TV subscription entirely. I’m guessing that — like myself — many of you have done so as well. If so, then like myself, you get 100% of your entertainment online and save a lot of money in the process. It’s a growing trend — which is one of the reasons I wrote an entire book about how to do it. However, adopting a cord-cutting strategy comes with some important limitations: these include, most notably, watching live events like awards shows, the news and yes…sports.
What’s a consumer to do who has no cable TV and lives in a country that only offers terrible Olympic coverage? The answer: find another country. Two, actually.
The Solution, Part I: Foreign Networks
The British Broadcasting Company (or BBC) keeps a well organized Olympics website which offers live streaming events and full, streaming replays of recent Olympic events that have already occurred, including the opening ceremonies. They also offer a simple chart of every sport this Winter with links that lead to both news and video on that sport.
The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) also maintains an excellent Olympics website, which offers everything the BBC offers but does them one better: it offers videos of some events in virtual reality (VR) — for those who have access to a Samsung Galaxy Gear or an Oculus Rift — or in scrollable 360° video for those on smartphones and computers. #NiceTouch
NBC, by comparison, only offers clips of “selected moments” of the opening ceremony and from other sporting events, most of which are only about one minute long. It’s maddening. There are no full streaming replays, no VR, and no second chances. Adding insult to injury, if you want to watch any live stream that NBC provides, you’ll first need to prove that you’re already paying for cable TV. Try to launch a live stream and you’ll see these two screens in quick succession. Not cool.
All of the videos on the BBC and CBC websites — including live streams — are 100% free and require no validation that you’re already paying for cable TV. However, there’s a catch: viewing any of the videos on the CBC or BBC websites require either a local Canadian or British IP address, respectively. This practice is known as “geofencing” and here’s what it looks like:
“Technical difficulties”, in this case, means “You’re not in our country, so tough noogies, American!”. Fear not, friends: geofencing is very common and, thankfully, very easy to defeat.
The Solution, Part II: Defeat A Geofence with a VPN
In Part One of my cybersecurity series on Medium, I discuss how using a virtual private network (or VPN) is an excellent way to provide a high level of privacy while online. Using a VPN service is simple, legal, and affordable at $5 to $10/month. Once purchased, all it takes to use the service is to install a VPN application on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, log in to the service and presto: all of your surfing is now encrypted and made private from the public and, more interestingly, from your ISP and other prying eyes.
However, it’s also worth noting that most VPN services offer another, very useful advantage to us here: the ability to connect to the web any servers that company keeps in other countries. Connecting to a VPN server that’s physically located in another country allows customers to surf the web as if they were local to that specific region. For example, if I should invest in a VPN service that maintains a Canadian server, I might chose to connect to that server and — like magic — I’m granted a Canadian IP address and now have access to Canadian-only websites…including the fantastic CBC Olympic webpages.
Are you getting it now? Good. Are you worried that you’re breaking the law? Also good! It’s worth knowing that you’re not running afoul of any laws. In my own research, I discovered that The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) believes that using a VPN to defeat geofencing is legal. PCWorld claims the same. Lastly. while this article in Forbes indicates that the legality of outsmarting geofencing remains unclear, they also mention that the CBC’s response to outsmarting their technology will be other technology, not legal action.
My take on the matter is simple: if what you’re doing is already considered legal, you should proceed with confidence. Using a VPN service to access a website that’s already 100% free to the public, to me, qualifies as legal. So does using it to access a website that you already pay to access.
Netflix, for example, uses geofencing on their websites and keeps different libraries of videos on demand for each region. As a result, you might not have access to the same videos that stream on Netflix in your home country when travelling abroad. Because I travel and enjoy having access to my favorite shows, I reached out to Netflix on Twitter to ask them about the legality of my using a VPN service. Here’s a screen grab of the conversation I had with their customer service. I believe the acronym “JMO” their agent used with me means “just my opinion”. I have no idea what “DT” means, but perhaps you will. (Note: I’m being told by my readers that these are most likely the initials of the customer support reps that are responding to me.)
Bottom line: although using a VPN service may violate the terms of service of some websites, that’s grounds — at worst — for having your membership revoked, not legal action. But even then, the website in question would need to be able to identify you. And paying for a good VPN service will make that task next to impossible.
The Solution, Part III: Choosing the Right VPN Service
There are hundreds of different VPN providers and they all provide slightly different features. So how is anyone supposed to choose the safest and most reputable ones? Many people, including myself, point to this website, for starters. Having combed through that website’s data, I’ve established a few base guidelines for choosing a VPN service. In short, only choose a VPN service that:
- doesn’t keep logs on the websites that its customers visit
- isn’t headquartered in the United States
- offers servers in at least 10+ countries
- is NOT a member of the 5, 9, or 14 eyes security agreement
- offers a connection with an encryption rating of at least “AES-256” using the modern OpenVPN protocol
- offers a free trial and/or a money back guarantee after 15–30 days
- supports both Macs & PCs as well as smartphones and tablets
These seven, key traits are more than important: they are, I feel, mandatory in order to protect your privacy online. Defeating geofencing is, frankly, easy: maintaining your online privacy is much, much harder. Give yourself every advantage by only choosing VPN providers that are pledged to help you accomplish the very same goals. As it turns out, there are only a small group of VPN providers that can claim to accomplish these seven core principles. Of those, I’m a fan of the following companies:
- NordVPN (in Panama)
- Cactus VPN (in Moldova)
- My Private Network (in Hong Kong)
- Boleh VPN (in Seychelles)
- IBVPN (in Gibraltar)
Look for yourself, of course, to confirm what I’m telling you. Don’t trust me or anyone: do the research yourself. It only takes a few moments and it’s fascinating. You’ll quickly learn that some VPN services keep logs of your actual IP address or the websites that you visit. Avoid those providers at all costs. Remember: you seek and deserve total privacy. That fundamental right is eroding quickly, so give yourself every advantage.
And then, after you’ve invested about $10 for a month for some excellent online privacy, you’ll gain a lovely bonus: the ability to bypass NBC entirely and watch the Olympics elsewhere online and in style! Stream in HD or VR with no cable TV subscription. It’ll make you feel like a $1 million or, at the very least, like you avoided being bullied by $4.38 billion!
In the end, I purchased an ongoing, yearly VPN subscription with a choice provider because the cost (roughly $60–$80/year) was worth it to protect my privacy and peace-of-mind. Perhaps you’ll feel the same.
Either way, have fun sticking it to NBC: they’re not the boss of you anymore.
One quick note: not every other country has Olympic coverage that’s better than what we have in the US. The Hollywood Reporter’s story about the 2016 Summer Games in Rio describes how the commentators in South Korea were sexist, that those in Russia promoted fake drug scandals about Michael Phelps and that one French commentator actually stated that slavery was good for the development of host country, Brazil.