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Why I Was Banned from WATCH ABC and Hulu

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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