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Why I Was Banned from WATCH ABC and Hulu

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Back when ABC arrived on the Apple TV (see “Apple TV Gains ABC, Bloomberg, Crackle, KORTV,” 11 December 2013), I noted that I couldn’t access it, because the app said I was in an “unsupported geo region.” I didn’t think too much about it at the time, figuring it was some kind of launch bug, and besides, there’s nothing I care to watch on ABC.


But months later, I still didn’t have access. That bothered the part of me that hates tech mysteries, but with a baby, a book to finish, and HBO’s “True Detective,” I had more pressing concerns. Then the problem began to spread.

One day my wife asked why Hulu Plus on the Apple TV said we were behind an anonymous proxy. We were not. I tried playing something on Hulu’s Web site and received the same error message, claiming that my Comcast-provided IP address was behind an anonymous proxy. Strange.

At this point, I was completely baffled. Who do you contact when something like this happens? Hulu? ABC? Your ISP? I decided to start with Hulu, since I pay for the service, and Comcast is a nightmare to work with. Hulu makes you jump through hoops to contact support — scroll down to the bottom of the Web site, click Help, click Contact Us below all the support articles, and then click Contact Support. ABC makes it even less obvious, but it turns out that the company’s feedback form doubles as a support request form.

Upon contacting Hulu, I immediately received an automated message back:

Thanks for contacting us. Based on the IP address you were using when you submitted this message, our system determined that your computer was accessing our site using a proxy server. Once you disable it, you should be able to watch videos on Hulu again.

I replied to the automated message, explaining that my IP was assigned by Comcast. Meanwhile, I received a similar message from ABC:

We detected that your internet network’s IP address is using an anonymous proxy service. Our player requires that IP settings are not anonymous or routed to known anonymous proxy services. Please follow the steps below to update your proxy settings:

I replied again, explaining, as I did with Hulu, that my Comcast-supplied IP address isn’t an anonymous proxy. I got this reply:

Thank you very much for your response. However, when we verified your IP address XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX, the proxy setting is still set to “anonymous,” please contact Comcast Xfinity to get more assistance on how to turn the proxy setting off on your router.

Argh! This was becoming Kafkaesque. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I tried resetting my AirPort Express to factory defaults, just in case I had enabled something screwy. No dice.

Comcast assigns dynamic IP addresses to the devices on its network, which means that they don’t stay the same forever. However, an IP address tends to stick to a MAC address (the unique identifier for every network interface) for quite some time. In the past, I’ve been able to work around IP bans by manually changing, or “cloning,” the MAC address for my router, which makes an ISP think that it’s a different device, needing a new IP number. Unfortunately, Apple’s AirPort base stations don’t offer that feature.

Fortunately, I found a guide explaining how to change your Comcast IP address without changing the MAC address. That technique worked, but I still couldn’t access Hulu or ABC. It appears that an entire IP range was banned.

I still hadn’t heard from a human at Hulu, but I decided to give ABC another shot. I sent a screenshot from AirPort Utility with my automatically assigned IP address, explaining that I had reset my router and that I wasn’t using any sort of proxy.

The good news is that this story has a happy ending. Within a few days, support reps at both Hulu and ABC acknowledged that my IP address was not an anonymous proxy and restored service. Thanks to Ben at ABC and Lauren M. at Hulu for getting this fixed.

A Taste of the Future? -- While I’m glad to have these problems fixed, they serve as sobering reminders that these streaming services can ban you at any time, for any reason. As we shift from traditional TV to online video, will such problems become more commonplace?

I’m still not sure how this happened, though I have a couple of theories. In December 2013, I was putting the finishing touches on “Take Control of Apple TV,” and, as part of my research, was experimenting with various proxies at the request of our early access readers. I was also experimenting with the Tor anonymization network on my MacBook, due to NSA-induced paranoia.

I can understand blocking Tor or blocking these proxies, but was my IP banned simply for having tried these services briefly? If so, that’s disturbing. What about people who use such services to protect their privacy and exercise their freedom of speech? Will we have to choose between watching commercial TV and defending our rights? Could governments encourage such blocking to discourage widespread adoption of anonymization technologies? Closer to the here and now, what if a friend visits your house and uses one of these services on your network? Will that get you blacklisted?

But maybe I’m just being paranoid. After all, traditional media companies offer services like Hulu, WATCH ABC, and HBO GO only reluctantly, to combat piracy, but these companies would prefer that you watch the old-fashioned way, over a coaxial cable, and their digital services often seem half-hearted. Case in point: HBO GO crashed in spectacular fashion when it released the season finale of the excellent “True Detective.” Even at the best of times, HBO GO has numerous network glitches and mediocre picture quality.

Meanwhile, Netflix held up like a champ when it debuted season 2 of the also-excellent “House of Cards,” it doesn’t ban users indiscriminately, and it’s much more forgiving when its subscribers use proxies to access foreign content. The difference, of course, is that other than licensing deals, Netflix is independent of the old guard. Netflix doesn’t exist out of reluctance, and it shows. If we want a bright future for Internet-based TV, we need more independent content creators and distributors like Netflix.

 

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Comments about Why I Was Banned from WATCH ABC and Hulu
(Comments are closed.)

"While I’m glad to have these problems fixed, they serve as sobering reminders that these streaming services can ban you at any time, for any reason. As we shift from traditional TV to online video, will such problems become more commonplace?"

I think you're overreacting. What probably happened was someone had that same IP address for a while serving as an anonymous proxy; you just had bad luck. I don't think any of these services are interested in "banning" people; I think it's just a glitch.

This said, a lot of people outside the US use proxies to access US content. It would make a lot more sense if they would figure out a way to allow foreigners to access the services - either by subscription or targeted ads - rather than make them go through what isn't a very complicated process.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-03-13 09:31
I admit in the article that I could be paranoid. But glitch or no, getting suddenly locked out of services that you pay for doesn't inspire confidence.
Charles  2014-03-13 09:34
Would have to be VERY bad luck when apparently the second IP that was obtained also had been used as an anonymous proxy.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-03-13 09:44
It's very strange. I'm curious to see if I can find out how they determine these things. Is there a shared database ran by a third party service? Port scanning? Packet sniffing? Frankly, I don't like any of the possibilities.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-03-13 10:38
And, in case it wasn't clear from the article, ABC had blocked Josh months ago, whereas the Hulu block was new. So it probably wasn't just a case of bad luck on a particular dynamic IP.
Richard Smith  2014-03-14 03:44
The short answer is yes, the same services that help mail servers block mail from open spam relays, or known spam sending mail servers, are also used to identify open anonymous proxies. And yes, TOR network connections are common targets for these services.
Jeff Porten  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2014-03-15 16:45
This is where you can look up the current TOR outgoing proxies (i.e., places you can masquerade from). http://torstatus.blutmagie.de
David Weintraub  2014-03-13 11:26
I wonder if this has to do with copyright protections. The right to watch something is negotiated on a country-by-country basis. It's why we had region codes on DVD players.

Imagine ABC trying to determine whether they had the right to broadcast a particular show to you. Are you in the U.S.? If they can't determine that via your IP address, they may not be able to determine whether they can legally show you the content.
Richard Smith  2014-03-14 03:49
Had? Still have. Bluray still has regions, iTunes has stores for each country, so yes, it has everything to do with copyright protections. Part of the problem is also every country operate their own censorship laws, and annoyingly, we can't expect a studio in America to run their program by any other censorship bureau, than america's, that has to be done by the distributors, which in turn doesn't happen until there is interest in the country for it.
Nicholas Barnard  2014-03-19 23:12
Content is generally licensed by country, and it often doesn't have anything to do with censorship. (Yes, sometimes it does, but not always.)

This is an outgrowth of the old media guard. A TV show or movie might be licensed to ABC (American Broadcasting Company) in America, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) in Australia, iTV in the UK, and yet more networks in each individual country. They each might have different lengths on how long the content would be theirs exclusively in their country, so Netflix might be able to get it in the US, but not in the UK, etc.

On top of all this is release windows that restrict who can have access to the content during certain periods of time. Just a few of the "windows" are: movie theaters, network TV, pay per view, premium TV, hotel pay per view, on movies on airplanes, DVDs for purchase, DVDs for rental, and online video. Sometimes these windows of time overlap, sometimes they don't. (For example movie theatres almost always come first, the order varies, but one order might be movie theatres, airplanes, hotel pay per view, DVDs for Rental, online video, premium TV, DVDs for purchase, network TV..) Its all designed so copyright holders can extract the maximum amount of money from their content...
Terence Lett  2014-03-14 09:04
I, for one, would love to have access to foreign content; BBC, ITV, ABC Australia, as well as various US content, such as PBS. Why not an international organization I can join ( for a fee) that would provide me an anonymous IP address much like my hosted web page?
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-03-14 09:14
There are a few options for this already. There are DNS providers that can make you appear to be in a different country, like Unblockus, and then there are a number of VPN providers that are even more thorough. I touch on this in my book, "Take Control of Apple TV."
Terence Lett  2014-03-14 12:34
I have not finished reading your book ... oops!
"Hulu doesn’t make it obvious how to contact support."

Really? It's the only button on the right hand side of the screen. They also have a free support number. Someone didn't do their research.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-03-17 08:23
We must be looking at different Hulus. I have to scroll all the way down, click Help, click Contact Us, click Contact Support, then fill out a form. Not difficult, but not obvious, either.
George Stamas  2014-03-20 11:51
I think there is a help button under your account name. In any event, it doesn't save any time over what you did.
Dona General  2014-03-24 17:35
This article is far too 'nerdy' for me, but I read it with high interest. I am intrigued by anything that bans me or my machine. It just 'ain't' American for any reason. Thanks Josh.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2014-03-24 19:33
I think Netflix is paving the way, as they usually do. In this case they are creating and distributing content - profitably. Unlike conventional media companies, they are not tied to traditional channels of distribution and thus have more freedom to innovate. Now, apparently, they also have the financing to license top drawer material and pay the best actors and directors to create premium content - at no extra charge to the consumer. HBO, among others, produces excellent content - Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, etc. - but they are stuck in a rut as far as distribution is concerned. Where's the HBO GO app for my internet enabled, Android powered TV? Or HULU Plus for that matter? MIA, that's where.
solsberg  2014-03-24 19:48
I recently discovered that we have exactly the same issue, my son pointed out to me just last week that we get the same message from Hulu.com when trying to play their videos (he thinks this has been going on for a few months), and also certain youtube videos which are region restricted behave similarly, and I also noticed the problem with the ABC iOS app. Again no help from the hulu support form.