Showing all posts tagged geography:

Mr Cook, Tear Down This Geo-Fence

Among other signs and portents, the first few days of 2017 have also provided more examples of the negative consequences of geofencing: first China demanded removal of the NYT app from app stores, and now Russia requires removal of the LinkedIn app.

I joked that the next story would involve Saudi Arabia demanding the removal of Grindr - but it was pointed out to me that Grindr and other similar apps are already banned in the Kingdom, unless of course you use a VPN. I was not that surprised, since one of my memories from my first visit to the sandbox was of censored episodes of The Big Bang Theory, where not only were Penny’s legs blurred, but something was being bleeped out in the dialogue. I couldn’t work out what it was at the time, so when I got back home I went looking for the episode in question. It turned out to be… menstruation. Yes. Bleeped out.

I am not arguing (today) about the right of a privately-owned TV channel to choose to censor its content in the country they operate in - although I do question what is left of The Big Bang Theory once the censors have had their way with it. They might as well just not show it.

No, my beef is with the big international companies such as Apple enabling this sort of local ban. Geofencing - the practice of restricting content by geographic region - was originally instituted in the iTunes Store and App Store to comply with IP protection requirements, but it was always consumer-hostile. Basically the idea was to enable differential pricing and different release dates for the same content in different regions. This policy would replicate what region-coding on DVDs delivered, preventing DVDs from one region from showing content on players from another region. This policy was presented as enabling the studios to charge less for films in India or Africa or SE Asia or wherever than in the US and Europe, but given rampant piracy in those regions, I doubt it had much impact. Meanwhile, region coding made it extremely difficult for US consumers to watch European films, or for European consumers to watch US films at the same time as they were released in the US.

Nowadays, nobody really does staggered DVD releases any more anyway. With global fanbases who communicate over the Internet, even TV shows - let alone feature films - have been forced to launch more or less simultaneously in all territories. Content producers had believed that the most die-hard consumers would wait patiently for six months, ignoring spoilers from their US peers, and be grateful for the content when it finally arrived in their region. What actually happened was that they would simply hit BitTorrent or YouTube or whatever the next morning. Underground “fansub" communities grew up to provide subtitles for foreign-language content, more or less overnight.

Studios and broadcasters eventually figured out that it was better to enable their fans than obstruct them. I remember Lost as being the first series to really embrace this, to the point that in Italy at least, Lost episodes were broadcast in English with subtitles instead of being redubbed, because this could be done in near real time. The dubbed version would be broadcast some time later, but at least the true fans had got their real-time fix through an approved channel.

Today, the online stores are the only ones that still strictly enforce geofencing. I still cannot buy TV shows through the Italian iTunes Store - not even TV shows that are available in Italy through other means. I am also tied to the Italian Store (as opposed to the UK or US one) by my credit card’s billing address. This is in fact the last thing that is keeping me as a cable TV customer. If I could just buy my TV shows through iTunes - the ones that aren’t already on Netflix, that is - I’d kill my cable subscription in a heartbeat.

The thing is, this sort of restriction used to be “just" hostile to consumers. Now, it is turning into a weapon that authoritarian regimes can wield against Apple, Google, and whoever else. Nobody would allow Russia to ban LinkedIn around the world, or China to remove the New York Times app everywhere - but because dedicated App Stores exist for .ru and .cn, they are able to demand these bans as local exceptions, and even defend them as respecting local laws and sensibilities. If there were one worldwide App Store, this gambit would not work.

What are the downsides of a worldwide App Store without geographic restrictions? When the App Store was set up, Apple needed to pacify the studios to get access to their content libraries. But now, in 2017, what would the studios do - turn down all the revenue from the iTunes Store? I don’t think so.

Mr Cook, tear down this geo-fence!

Previously


Images by Cole Patrick and Gili Benita via Unsplash

A Conversation about AppleTV

A frustrating conversation with AppleSupport over Twitter DM:

Me: I can't enable Siri on my AppleTV, despite language & locale being set to en-US. Is this because my iTunes Store account is tied to the Italian Store?

@AppleSupport: If your Apple ID is tied to the Italian Store, then Siri won't work for your Apple TV as it's not available in Italy at this time.

Me: Why? The whole OS is in English, and I only want Siri to speak English. Plus it works on iOS; why make tvOS different? It should key off language & locale, not where my credit card bills are sent.

@AppleSupport: If the feature isn't available to a specific country, then any Apple ID connected to the country will not be able to access the feature when it's used on the Apple TV. You can keep an eye on this article to see when Siri will be available for Italy under the 'Here's where you can use Siri' section: apple.co/1ppjfUB1

Ugh. This is classic Apple, not giving any explanation.

My assumption is that the limitation is precisely because my Apple ID ties me to the Italian iTunes Store, and to its catalogue. I have complained before about the problems this causes. The way this would affect Siri would be me saying: "Hey Siri, please play The Godfather" and Siri not being able to find it - because in the Italian iTunes Store it’s listed as Il Padrino.

The obvious solution is to let people choose which iTunes Store they want to purchase from, but I suspect this will never happen, for two reasons. One is that Apple is presumably constrained by the licenses from the content owners only to specific countries. In the same way, DVDs (remember DVDs?) were locked to specific regions, and multi-region DVD players were grey-market items.

The other reason is that mine is an edge case, shared only by a relatively small number of expats and other deracinated cosmopolitans. Edge cases that affect Apple employees and their testers get addressed quickly, as John Gruber and Serenity Caldwell discussed referring to the use case of multiple Watches connected to a single iPhone. Anything that does not affect those users? Wait and hope.

We saw the same thing around the initial roll-out of Maps, with high quality data for the Bay Area, and problems elsewhere. The first version of the Watch arguably had the same issue, with one entire physical control dedicated to a feature that was only useful to people all of whose friends were Watch users - not the best idea for a product whose appeal at launch was unclear.

I suppose this is almost the definition of a first-world problem, but it’s still frustrating to me when Apple stumbles on something this easy to fix.2


  1. From that page: "Siri is currently available on Apple TV (4th generation) in these countries and languages: Australia (English), Canada (English, French), Germany (German), France (French), Mexico (Spanish), Netherlands (Dutch), Norway (Norwegian Bokmål), Japan (Japanese), Spain (Spanish), Sweden (Swedish), UK (English), US (English, Spanish)." Seriously? Dutch and Norwegian before Italian? NL population is 16.8 M, NO population is 5 M, and Italy is nearly 60 M - not counting Italian-speaking Switzerland. Maybe there’s less AppleTV penetration, but it’s not exactly a small market, and Siri has been able to speak Italian almost since launch. 

  2. My other pet peeve: the Control Center on iOS should allow users to 3D-Touch the wifi and Bluetooth controls to select networks and devices respectively. Especially for Bluetooth, the extra step of going into Settings > Bluetooth and waiting for the device to connect adds annoyance and friction when I just want to listen to a podcast or some music. 

Signs of Hope

I was heartened to read that the EU, no less, is calling out Sky over their silly geographical restrictions:

The European Union’s top antitrust authority on Thursday charged six American studios and a pay television company in Britain with unfairly blocking access to films and other content.

Margrethe Vestager had one of the most intelligent comments I have ever heard from a politician:

European consumers want to watch the pay-TV channels of their choice regardless of where they live or travel in the E.U.

Standing ovation

Finally, someone gets it. Just because I live in Country A, doesn’t mean that I don’t want to watch content from Country B. I’d be happy to pay for the content, but if you make me jump through hoops of shipping devices to forwarding addresses, cracking DRM, and whatever else, guess what? I’m not going to pay!

On the other hand, give me an easy, legal way to get the content and pay for it, and we’ll both be much happier.

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There will be an interesting test case soon, as the BBC is getting ready to launch an online store, these types of geographic restriction are a problem.

The BBC is a special case because much of its content is (eventually) licensed worldwide. I get much of what the BBC broadcasts through my cable subscription one way or another, whether it’s through the BBC’s own channels, or on other networks like Discovery that license BBC content such as Top Gear. Sky then pays Discovery for that content - so far so good. The problem is that I get that content months late and often with annoying dubs or subtitles that can’t be removed - despite the Sky platform’s pretty good support for multiple audio and subtitle options on broadcast content.

This means that I end up *ahem*obtaining content through other channels so that I can watch it within a few days of the air date instead of much later, and with the English audio and no subtitles instead of both audio tracks at once, which happens far too often. I used to do this for Top Gear all the time, and recently I did it for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I would gladly have paid for both of these, but I could not find a way to do it. While JS&MN is now in the iTunes store, it’s only in the UK and US iTunes stores. I am restricted to the Italian iTunes store, because Apple in their wisdom force you to use the store in the same country as your credit card’s billing address.

The result? Instead of paying the BBC directly, or paying the BBC via Apple, I pirated the content - because that was not only free and very easy, it was literally the only way I could get it.

I was always amazed that nobody saw a problem - or rather, an opportunity - here, but it seems that the EU may finally sort this mess out.

About time, too. Top Gear is going to restart soon2.


Image by elizabeth lies via Unsplash


  1. Or to anyone savvy enough to run a VPN - but then again, it’s always possible to jump the fences… 

  2. Yes, I’m going to give Chris Evans a chance - but I’m also going to check out what the original trio get up to over on Amazon Prime. That is a whole other rant. 

Jumping the fence

Facebook just released their new iPhone client, an app called Paper. It’s quite nice, and gets good reviews.

Bit of a jerk move on the name, mind.

If you are in the US, you can just download Facebook Paper, but if you’re in the rest of the world, you’re out of luck.

Or are you?

There are a few different unofficial ways to get apps onto an iPhone, bypassing these sorts of geographical restrictions: sideloading, changing the country on your existing iTunes account, or creating a whole new Apple ID from scratch.1

Sideloading

Sideloading2 means that you install the app from your computer, but without going through iTunes. You will need to have access to the actual app file, so you will need a co-conspirator in the US to get you the app. Your confederate can find these as .ipa files in the iTunes Media/Mobile Applications subdirectory of their main iTunes directory.

Once you have the relevant .ipa file, you can use the iPhone Configuration Utility3 to load the app onto your phone. Once you’ve done this, the app should behave normally, including for updates.

Changing the country

You can change the country of an existing iTunes account quite easily: open the App Store app, scroll all the way to the bottom of the “Featured" tab, tap on your Apple ID, choose “View Apple ID” in the popup, and tap on “Country/Region” to change to the US store.

There is a pretty big downside to this method: your payment details will be reset, which would not be too bad, except that it also loses any recurring subscriptions you have set up. I have a few that I didn’t want to mess this, so I didn’t follow through, and can’t vouch that this method works.

Creating a new Apple ID

I didn’t want to do this because it seemed like it would be a huge hassle, but it’s actually fairly painless. There is only one wrinkle to be aware of. Apple in their wisdom will not let you create an Apple ID from scratch without setting a means of payment. However, if you sign out from your existing Apple ID, then go to install a free app (such as, oh for instance Facebook Paper), you are prompted to log in with an existing Apple ID or create a new one. If you start the process this way, you will then be able to select “None” for your method of payment.

You’ll need an e-mail address that you have not previously used with Apple to complete the registration. Once you have done this, finish downloading Facebook Paper, then log out of your US account and log back in as yourself.

Facebook Paper should pick up your existing FB credentials saved in iOS and work normally from this point on.


  1. Well, or move physically to another country, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this post.  

  2. This is the method I used to load Google+ onto my iPad back when it was iPhone only. Remember when we were all excited about G+? 

  3. This page is not really up to Apple’s usual standards: all-lower-case title for a start, and a confusing mix of version numbers and platforms all jumbled together with no explanation. 

Apparently, borders are still a thing

We live in a cosmopolitan world, in which crazes and fads can spread around the globe as fast as the bits can get through the pipes. You can make friends (or enemies) of people on the other side of the world, and speak to them more often and more meaningfully than people on the other side of the street. Every day we move closer to a world without borders.

Unless, that is, you are trying to buy or sell content.

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I have never watched the Godfather films (I know, I know), and with some intercontinental travel coming up, I thought this would be a good time to load them up on my iPad and finally catch up - forty years late, but who’s counting?

Since I no longer have any truck with physical media, my first stop was iTunes. At first I thought they did not have the films, but this turned out to be because I live in Italy, and so they are listed as Il Padrino. Fair enough, except that it’s not just the title card that’s Italian; the only soundtrack available is an Italian dub. It’s not even the original, it’s a re-dub, and the reviews are all one-stars complaining about the new dub.

Of course iTunes has all three Godfather films in the US store, but Apple in their wisdom tie your iTunes account to the country your credit card is registered in.1 This means I can’t simply download the English-language version from the US store.

We don’t get Netflix in Italy, because we have crazy regulations here in Europe, but there are any number of video-streaming services. Unfortunately, I want to watch the film offline, in an aeroplane, so they are no use to me.

Back when I still did physical media, what I would do is buy the DVD from Amazon - which, infuriatingly, was often cheaper than the download versions. DVDs all come with original-language soundtracks as well as whatever dub applies, so I’d just rip the DVD (thank you, DeCSS) and watch it that way. However, I no longer own a computer with a DVD drive, so that’s out.

I tried shopping around for other options, but ended up torrenting the blasted thing2, promising myself I will buy it once Apple actually deign to accept my money.3 This is a bit like my recent efforts to buy albums I used to own on (copied) cassettes. I’d rather you didn’t think of it as theft, more as deferred revenue.

Seriously, would it not be easier just to let me give you money? When piracy is not only free, but actually the quickest and easiest way to get the content, what is the point of walls? For every dollar you make by forcing someone to jump through your Ultraviolet hoops, you lose thousands to people who refuse to have anything to do with you - this time, or in future.

Well done.


UPDATE: In a nice coincidence, Facebook reminds me that region locks aren't just for movies by releasing their new app, Paper, for the US only. Because of course nobody outside the US wants it.

Let's break this down. It's not a volume issue, since most FB users are in the US. It's not a language issue, because plenty of people speak English outside the US.4 It's not a content issue, because the content is people's FB streams.

So: why?

Especially when it’s easy to jump the fence.


Image by Martin Wessely via Unsplash


  1. Yes, there are hacks, but by the time I realised this was an issue, it would have been too much hassle to switch accounts. 

  2. The irony is strong with this one.  

  3. Yes, I know it’s not just Apple here, it’s probably the studios’ fault at least as much as Apple’s for restricting the rights in the first place (hello, region-coding on DVDs!). 

  4. In fact we speak proper English. British English is not a dialect, dagnabbit.