The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is famous world-wide for the high quality of its programming. In addition to traditional TV (and radio) broadcasting, catch-up content and live streaming are available online via its BBC iPlayer website.
The reason that “Auntie Beeb’s”’ programming is so well regarded is in large part thanks to its unique funding model. Unlike commercial services, the BBC is funded through a TV licence that every TV-owning member of the British public is legally required to pay. This costs £145.50 per year (approx. USD $190).
As more and more people consume TV shows and movies via the internet rather than via conventional means, the number of people buying TV licences has dropped. Until today (1 September), non-licence paying UK citizens could legally watch catch-up content on BBC iPlayer, but needed a licence in order to watch live streaming.
This disparity has been regarded by many as a “loophole” that may help account for the falling number of people buying TV licences (opting to watch catch-up TV instead). I am not personally very convinced by this argument. But the law has nevertheless changed in order to close this perceived loophole.
As of 1 September 2016, a TV licence is legally required in order to watch any video content on BBC iPlayer. Radio content is not restricted, and is also freely available to international listeners.
“You must be covered by a TV Licence to download or watch BBC programmes on iPlayer – live, catch up or on demand.This applies to any device and provider you use. Don’t forget, you still need a TV Licence to watch or record programmes on any channel as they are being shown on TV or live on an online TV service.”
So how will the law be enforced?
Well… this is where things get almost surreally British! The logical (and easy to implement) thing to do would be to issue all licence holders with a username and password, which would be required to access the BBC iPlayer website.
Much like porn websites with their laughable “Are you 18+” age checks, however, where visitors must simply click the Yes button in order to access the website’s content, the BBC has opted to ask visitors to click on a button saying “I have a TV Licence. Watch now.”
A TV Licencing spokesperson explained,
“We know the vast majority of people are law abiding and would anticipate those who need a licence for the first time will buy one.We have a range of enforcement techniques which we will use and these have already allowed us to prosecute people who watch on a range of devices, not just TVs.”
What these “range of enforcement techniques” are is not explained. It is possible, however, that the BBC will log the IP addresses of every iPlayer visitor who claims to have a TV licence, and investigate users whose IP address does not belong to a physical address belonging to a registered TV licence payer.
To be honest, although possible, this is not very likely. If you are a UK-resident non-TV licence holder who is tempted to abuse the BBC’s trust and click on the “I have a licence button” regardless, you probably won’t get a stern knock on your door.
In all likelihood, the BBC will simply continue its current policy of harassing residents of households that are not registered as owning a TV licence with letters and the occasional visit from a TV licencing official.
Using a VPN to watch BBC iPlayer
If you are of a paranoid disposition, however, you can protect yourself from this danger by using a VPN. This will protect you because:
- You will access BBC iPlayer using the IP address of the VPN server, so your real IP is hidden from the BBC.
- All data between your computer or device and the VPN server is securely encrypted. So even your ISP cannot tell that you are watching iPlayer (or see anything else that you get up to on the internet).
Indeed, using a VPN will also allow international viewers who are willing to lie to the BBC about owning a licence full access to BBC iPlayer. Simply connect to a VPN server located in the UK, and off you go!
Note that the BBC has been trying to crack down on the use of VPNs to access iPlayer. This is something that also affects legitimate TV licence owning Brits who wish increase their privacy and enjoy the added security of using a VPN.
This VPN ban is patchy at best, however, and BBC iPlayer remains accessible using many (if not most) VPN services. For a list of the best VPN services not blocked by iPlayer, please check out 5 Best VPNs for BBC iPlayer.
Update 2 September 2016: The BBC has confirmed that it will not use “mass surveillance techniques” to catch non-licence payers,
“We expect most people will simply obey the law. We are not going to use mass surveillance techniques, we are not going to ask internet providers for IP addresses, and in fact we will simply use existing enforcement processes and techniques which we believe to be adequate and appropriate.”
Using a VPN is still a great way for non-UK residents to enjoy iPlayer.