Annoyed By Tape Delay, Viewers Pry Into BBC's Feed

Frustrated with NBC's live streaming Olympic coverage, a sizeable number of Internet viewers are cracking into the BBC's U.K. coverage. Users outside of the U.K. are blocked, but that can be circumvented with the use of a proxy server. Mitch Stoltz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation talks to Audie Cornish about proxy servers, how they work, and their legality.


Let's face it, for many Americans, watching the Olympic events they want to watch, when they want to watch them, without knowing the results or having to endure NBC commentary is, well, as hard as competing in the events themselves. NBC has defended its tape-delayed primetime showings in part by pointing to its digital streaming of live events.

That's still not good enough for some Olympics fans, who are taking matters into their own hands. They're using their computers to tap into overseas broadcasts of the Olympics from sources including the BBC. Here to explain more about this technology and whether or not it's legal is Mitch Stoltz. He's a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Mitch, welcome to the program.

MITCH STOLTZ: Thank you.

CORNISH: So let's start with the basic terms of how this works. You hear terms like DNS and proxy servers. What exactly is this technology?

STOLTZ: So there's a wide variety of technologies that get used here, but fundamentally, what they all do is make you, the Internet user, appear to be somewhere else. They make it look like you're using the Internet from another country, in this case the U.K.

And it goes by various names. These could be DNS services, proxy servers. They could be virtual private networks. Fundamentally, they all make it look like you are somewhere else, and by doing so, they bypass the technological locks that organizations like the BBC put on their Internet TV streams that try to restrict those streams to people in a particular country.

CORNISH: And I'm here asking about the Olympics and kind of joking about it, but this technology has other uses, right? I mean, how common is it?

STOLTZ: It's very widespread. It's the same sort of technology that people use to bypass censorship of the Internet in countries like China and Iran. And it's used by people both in the U.S. and in other countries to watch TV on the Internet that they can't get where they are.

For example, there are a lot of U.S. sites showing U.S. broadcast TV and network shows, and those shows are popular abroad, but they're not available. They're on the Internet. There's generally no way to get them until much later. So people use these services to watch, for example Hulu, and see the current network shows in the U.S.

CORNISH: Is it legal? I mean, who - sort of who are the parties involved, and who can raise legal questions if there are any?

STOLTZ: So the BBC and NBC and similar networks and whatnot in other countries have licenses with the London Olympics and with the International Olympic Committee to be the exclusive broadcaster of the Olympics in particular countries. And part of, I understand, the terms of those agreements is not letting people outside of your country watch streams on the Internet.

So the parties involved are basically the Olympics organizers and the national networks, in this case the BBC. And the BBC has terms on its website that say pretty simply if you're not inside the United Kingdom, we are not going to allow you to watch these streams.

But the only real way for them to enforce that restriction is technologically, and then if they catch you, they cut you off.

CORNISH: So then I guess a follow-up question is: Is it ethical?

STOLTZ: That's an interesting question. I think doing something like this in order to avoid paying for something is unethical. Doing something like this to get content that you as a person in the U.S. cannot get any other way is not necessarily unethical, it's more practical.

CORNISH: Mitch Stoltz is a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Mitch, thank you.

STOLTZ: You're very welcome.

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