Last Updated on August 23, 2023
Beating the BBC VPN Block
It was a move greeted by shock, disbelief and to some extent even despair suddenly the BBC started to block VPN connections from across the world. Just to roll back a little, for years the BBC had insisted that all it’s media content was only available to domestic viewers i.e. those who were physically located in the United Kingdom. However, although this was official policy, the BBC did very little to actually enforce this other than a basic IP check which blocked anyone accessing from a non-UK IP address.
This IP blocking method although effective was actually extremely simple to bypass, all one needed was a way of hiding your location.
Initially this could be achieved by using a simple proxy server although in 2016 BBC started to block these following the lead of most global media companies. There was another method left, using something called a VPN which stands for virtual private network which also allowed users to hide their physical location and IP address.
A VPN connection is virtually impossible to detect and so these have continued to work, and many have switched from using proxy servers. Unfortunately, VPN services are more expensive to run and therefore these are almost always requiring a paid subscription. The free ones are filled with advertising, share your internet connection with strangers and are all frustratingly slow to use which means that everything involves extensive buffering.
Here you can see in this video, a demonstration of a VPN program being used to access the BBC from outside the UK.
Although the move to paid services was upsetting to a lot of people, these subscriptions where relatively inexpensive and as they opened up all the UK TV channels are still extremely popular. However, during the second part of 2016 and into 2017 the BBC started to attack these services too. In fact, during specific times, literally thousands of people found themselves blocked almost overnight – one day they were happily watching the BBC the following day they were blocked. It almost seemed that suddenly they had figured it out, BBC iPlayer detecting VPN services – was it possible? Well, no, they can’t detect them but it’s true that for many their BBC iPlayer VPN not working had suddenly occurred.
So, if the VPN connection is virtually undetectable, how did the BBC manage to block so many of them?
How Does BBC Block VPN Connection Services
As mentioned, a properly configured and well-run VPN service is almost impossible to detect. Even the Chinese have thrown huge resources at identifying and blocking VPNs in order to control the huge use of them to circumvent their filtering and censorship. They have not been completely successful, and many Chinese routinely use VPN services to bypass the Great Firewall of China and indeed retain their anonymity in one of the most oppressive internet states in the world. Other media companies have all tried in various ways too, most seem to settle with a partial success of blocking the simple proxies. Nearly all media companies now block the easy targets so for example you can’t use a simple French proxy for M6 Replay either.
So obviously the BBC do not have anything like the technical expertise or resources to match this, however there are other options which can be fairly effective. Firstly, although the actual type of connection cannot be easily identified, they can identify when thousands of concurrent connections come from specific IP address ranges. VPN servers will have limited numbers of IP addresses and when the BBC detects thousands of streams all being directed at the same ones then it’s likely they are some sort of proxy or VPN. It’s also being used by other companies and is almost certainly the reason that ITV Hub is not working with VPN services either
Secondly, many of these VPN services are easily identified by a little detective work. Many of them openly advertise or display their TV watching services on their websites. Type ‘BBC iPlayer abroad’ or ‘watch UK TV abroad’ into a search engine like Google and you’ll see some paid adverts for various websites. All the BBC has to do is look up these services and block them manually, anything that looks like a TV watching service and not a proper security-based VPN will be fair game. So, there are some truths to these rumours, but it would be wrong to say that BBC iPlayer not working through VPN anymore
So, in essence a little detective work and monitoring incoming connections can be a pretty effective way of blocking these VPN connections. There is no real BBC iPlayer VPN workaround, merely selecting the right sort of VPN service. Fortunately, the older legitimate VPN services don’t advertise these facilities and also have large infrastructures with lots of servers to spread their connections. They have made little additional effort in blocking these services since the BBC iPlayer Proxy and VPN 2017 purge, so the remaining companies should be fine – certainly I’ve been using Identity Cloaker for over a decade now without issues.
Companies like Identity Cloaker still work with all the UK TV stations despite these blocking efforts because they remain primarily security services not ‘TV watching’ proxies.