New Zealand’s Lack of Accessibility Options A Good Reason to Beat Geoblocking

Public relations 101. What do you do when you have unpalatable news that you’d like to stay under the radar as much as possible? One of the oldest tricks in the book is to release it just ahead of a long weekend, especially one of the few days where a newspaper isn’t going to be published. It’s an old trick, used by legal and communications people who haven’t fully grasped that social media makes such strategies null and void.

So it was that on the Thursday before Easter, we learned that a bunch of New Zealand corporates with vested interests are seeking to limit what New Zealanders can do with their Internet.

First, a bit of background.

For some time, CallPlus, which offers Internet access through brands such as Slingshot and Orcon, has provided Global Mode. This feature, included as part of the monthly subscription paid for Internet access, is similar to stand-alone services like UnoTelly and UnblockUS. Using some DNS trickery, they give customers access to services that aren’t generally available in New Zealand.

Popular uses of the service include accessing the US version of Netflix, watching shows on Hulu, and tapping into the great TV and sport content offered by the BBC.

We’re not with any of the ISPs offering Global Mode, but we have UnoTelly’s excellent service set up through our router. Couple that with a static IP address from our ISP, and we can access much of the content we want when at home without any effort at all.

I view the Global Mode offering from CallPlus much like I view ISP-provided email. It’s fine for people with limited requirements, and it’s a good marketing tool, but I prefer to use a specialist provider that is constantly monitoring for changes, and adding new services as the need arises.

Nevertheless, I applaud CallPlus for offering the service, because it’s a user-friendly way to defeat artificial, archaic barriers to accessing content. The Internet is an open, global network. Just as the music industry behaved like ostriches before Steve Jobs showed them a better way, so TV and movie rights holders keep trying to delay the inevitable through geoblocking. The days of being able to maximise revenue by selling country-specific rights, then retro-fitting the Internet with flaky artificial boundaries to protect their investment, are gone. People are gaining too many smarts.

Knowing that overcoming such flimsy technological barriers isn’t difficult, content producers and rights holders have tried to scare people by claiming that those who access content through circumventing geoblocking are pirates. This is hysterical nonsense. Actually, originally my description of this involved a single word describing cow excrement, but on balance I decided to keep it seemly.

We’re not talking Napster in 1999 here, and we’re not talking the illegal torrenting of a movie. I’m no more a pirate for watching geoblocked content I’ve paid for than I am a pirate for watching a DVD in New Zealand that I’ve imported from Amazon.

The vested interests who push this line are dinosaurs on a big brother trip, twisting the facts in a most Orwellian way in the hopes they’ll prevail through confusion and fear.

So, back to Easter Thursday. As reported in this excellent NBR story,
Sky,
Spark,
TVNZ and MediaWorks are taking legal action to have the CallPlus Global Mode shut down. The first step was the usual one, a bullying legal letter designed to intimidate CallPlus into switching it off. Thankfully, CallPlus seems to appreciate that its legal position is sound, and it looks like it will fight it through the courts if it has to.

Some important objections to the legal action have already been canvased in the NBR story, such as how these companies can possibly think they will deal with the numerous ways a New Zealander has of accessing geoblocked content, besides Global Mode.

I agree with all the concerns raised. Additionally, I’d like to offer a perspective that’s unlikely to get an airing in the mainstream media, which typically doesn’t give accessibility issues any coverage.

All of the companies taking this legal action have shown scant regard for the ability of blind people to access the content they offer. Let’s shine a bit of long overdue light on their shameful performance.

Spark offers a video on demand service called Lightbox. Its site is useable by an experienced screen reader user with certain browsers, but it couldn’t be described as universally accessible. Lightbox offers none of its programming with audio description, the additional layer of audio that tells a blind person what’s happening on screen. Audio description is to the blind what closed captioning is to the Deaf.

TVNZ offers some audio description, funded by New Zealand On-Air, on its Freeview transmissions. But like a growing number of tech-savvy kiwis, I seldom watch TV this way. I want to watch a show when it’s convenient for me, not when a scheduler says I should. Unless I record the show from TV, something that requires a bit of thought and specific technology to do accessibly, I’m out of luck.

TVNZ offers an on-demand service, but audio described content isn’t available on it. What’s worse, a recent update to their iOS app has rendered the service inaccessible on my mobile platform of choice. I wrote to TVNZ the day the inaccessible version was released, and have yet to even receive a reply.

It’s a stark and sad contrast to our public radio broadcaster, Radio New Zealand, which is a world leader in accessibility and ensures that accessibility is taken into account right from the planning stage of a new app or feature.

MediaWorks doesn’t offer audio described content on-air or online, and their 3 Now iOS app has always been unusable by blind people. Again I’ve sought to make contact on the matter, again there has been no reply. A shame, as the 3 News app is an excellent user experience from a blindness perspective.

Sky is just appalling in every respect. No audio description, their website is an accessibility mess, Sky Go is next to impossible, and the Sky app is not much better.

The summary? Internet-based TV in New Zealand is a disgraceful accessibility backwater.

The US is not some sort of promised land by any means. Netflix and Hulu don’t offer audio description either, and the user experience from an accessibility perspective could be better. Hulu in particular has deteriorated in iOS accessibility of late.

The UK, on the other hand, is the place from which I get most of my TV content. Its communications regulator, Ofcom, requires that all networks provide a minimum amount of audio described content, and most networks are comfortably exceeding the legal requirements.

The BBC iPlayer website and iOS app are a brilliant experience, both offering a wide variety of audio described content. Earlier in the week, I also watched a great Channel 4 drama, audio described, about the forming of the coalition government in the UK after the 2010 election. The Channel 4 website allows one to toggle audio description on and off from within its main player, a very slick setup.

Soon, the ABC in Australia will be making audio described content available online, and I look forward to being able to fully enjoy more content via those means.

Regular readers to this blog will remember my post on Radio Sport’s appalling coverage of the cricket world cup. A couple of weeks after writing that, my daughter and I attended the match between England and Sri Lanka at the stadium here in Wellington. New Zealanders were part of the commentary team, just meters away from us. But because Radio Sport wasn’t broadcasting it, I had to log into a virtual private network from the stadium which made it appear that I was in the UK, and stream the BBC coverage over 4G. The delay inherent in streaming meant that I heard a description of the action people were cheering about a good 20 seconds after it happened.

So while I believe strongly that fighting for the Internet to remain as it was intended, truly global and open, is important in itself, the geoblocking issue is also important because all the companies taking part in this legal action, and some who are not, are derelict in their moral and possibly legal duty when it comes to their content being fully accessible to everyone.

There are similarities to the issues that drove brave and entrepreneurial young people to begin broadcasting offshore in Britain and New Zealand in the 1960s. The people weren’t being given what they wanted by the establishment, so other measures were necessary. In this case, rather than respond on quality, price and content, big kiwi corporates are seeking to safeguard their mediocre offerings through intimidation. The model is flawed, and it’s unsustainable.

This is a serious moral issue in my view and hopefully many consumers will see it that way. Sadly, I don’t have many of these services to cancel here at home. The only company which is a part of taking this legal action that we do business with is Spark. Our Internet is currently through BigPipe, a subsidiary of Spark, which has been a superb provider. But I’ll certainly be cancelling my service with them in protest, and have already let them know why they lost my business. One person won’t matter a jot to them, but I live in hope that I won’t be the only one.

If CallPlus offers a service that meets my needs, I’ll go with them to show my support, and I hope others will do the same.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if these bullying companies stopped behaving like blind people don’t exist, or are unworthy of the same service everyone else receives. If they did, geoblocking wouldn’t be necessary for me to enjoy a wide variety of TV content accessibly.

1 Comment

  1. rikki

    This is a brilliant commentary. I hope it gets much wider distribution. It explains extremely well the the situation in New Zealand up to now and the selfish and mean-spirited motives of the big media companies, who want to continue to squeeze as much profit as possible from their cozy protected market without having to actually do anything meaningful in return. They have had things their way for much too long.

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