Hulu cracks down on VPN masking to block access by non-U.S. viewers

Numerous Hulu viewers who use anonymous IP proxies to access the streaming service found themselves blocked this weekend following a stepped-up effort to prevent its data from being streamed outside its U.S. territory.

The crackdown is affecting "hundreds of thousands" of users--or at least IP addresses--in the United States, according to a TorrentFreak estimate.

And it led at least one publication to speculate whether Hulu is planning to expand internationally.

Virtual private networks (VPNs) can be used to create "spoof" IP addresses that appear to be within the U.S., so that viewers outside Hulu's approved streaming territory can watch its content. However, the practice isn't always illegitimate: Creating a VPN is a way to "anonymize" oneself online, creating an added security layer when using unsecured Wi-Fi in a public place, for example.

Many users trying to access Hulu through a VPN this weekend were greeted with a message instead: "Based on your IP-address, we noticed that you are trying to access Hulu through an anonymous proxy tool. Hulu is not currently available outside the U.S. If you're in the U.S. you'll need to disable your anonymizer to access videos on Hulu."

VPN providers VikingVPN, TorGuard and Private Internet Access were among the first to notice that Hulu was blocking access to several well-known VPN addresses. Users in Australia trying to access the streaming service also were among the first to get Hulu's message.

Australia's government began floating anti-piracy measures in February, including a three-strikes takedown policy that, if enacted, would be more strict than similar policies implemented voluntarily by several U.S. ISPs including Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T (NYSE: T). But the Hulu crackdown doesn't appear to be related to those policy measures. Instead, a Sydney Morning Herald column speculates, Hulu may be moving closer toward international expansion.

"There's growing pressure on Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) to keep out Australians to protect local rights holders such as Foxtel and Quickflix. Hulu would naturally experience similar pressure," SMH's Adam Turner wrote. "Or is Hulu ramping up its defences because it's preparing to expand into foreign markets?"

While noting that such expansion seems unlikely despite rumors that Netflix is eyeing the land down under, a Hulu Australia service would almost certainly cost more, noted Turner. "In Australia, Hulu and Netflix would have to abide by local rights agreements with the likes of Foxtel. Aussies would end up paying more than US users but getting less in return. To be honest, we're better off just sneaking into the US sites."

Any potential expansion wouldn't be Hulu's first international party, however. Three years ago, Hulu launched its subscription video on demand service in Japan, the first such SVOD in the country according to CEO Mike Hopkins. But Hulu sold off the service to Nippon TV in February.

For more:
- the Sydney Morning Herald has this story
- Broadband TV News has this story
- The State Column has this story
- Gizmodo Australia has this story

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