Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Watching BBC TV in America

My cable company decided a while ago that it was just too expensive to carry BBC America within my regular package, so rather than switch to digital we've been struggling along, watching Doctor Who and Torchwood through Netflix but hoping there was a more real time solution in sight.

This will be a bit of a departure from my usual areas of focus, but I wanted to share with everyone how I've been able to enjoy some of my favorite BBC shows here in the former colonies.

Last year, there was an excellent Wired article about Evan Ratliff who tried to vanish from the world and then Wired had a contest to see if anyone could track him down. (Spoiler Alert: he was found.) At one point he was using a tool called Tor to conceal his IP address. Tor gave him the ability to use a proxy server located in another country. Interesting article overall, but my brain logged this one fact, drew circles around it, lit it on fire, flashing neon lights - there is a tool called Tor that at least 1 person has used successfully to make it look like they are somewhere else, like in another country.

This spring, the new season of Doctor Who was starting up (Series 6). We really really liked Series 5, and were looking forward to the continuing adventures of the Doctor, Amy Pond, Rory and River Song. However, we had a problem.

Netflix (streaming or DVD) would only have it available once the season was complete, which meant we would have to wait a year from the start of the season to watch it. Since this was unacceptable to all of us, we wanted to find another way. The BBC does air its new shows online right after the broadcast. So all we'd have to do is hookup a laptop to our TV and stream the video, right?

What the? AAAAAGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!! You know that Tumblr face where it feels like everything is just so wrong.....

But wait, despite the frustration, here is another fact - go brain - BBC limits viewing of their shows online to people who are in Great Britain. Hmm, if only there were a way to tell the BBC I am in Great Britain, even though I'm not. I wonder if I've ever seen something about that before....THE WIRED ARTICLE!!!!

Ok, so I apologize for the dramatics, but it was a wonderful thing when I finally made the connection. All I needed to do was get Tor, use it to tell the BBC I was a limey, and we're good.

Side note: Why does the BBC limit its shows to only GB based viewers? Since the BBC is a government-tax-funded-enterprise, only locals should get the benefit of its services. Free Internet slackers like me aren't paying taxes, and you have to pay to play.

Side note 2: Where does Netflix fit in? I can watch every Torchwood episode made, streaming with Netflix, whenever and however many times as I want. You're telling me Netflix paid British taxes for me to watch? Here, let me laugh cynically in your face now...

So at last, here is how you too can get Tor, and watch these and many more excellent British Broadcasting Company shows locally. And its all perfectly legal* too!

Much thanks to Cherie Hurwitz' blog, which led me to most of the details I needed to get it all working. The blog has been updated with more details for Hulu as well.


Step 1: Get Firefox. You might be able to get everything to work with IE, but I don't recommend it.
Firefox Download Button

Step 2: Download and Install Tor. You need the "Stable Vidalia Bundle" for your operating system.

Step 3: Get the Tor Button add-on for Firefox.
(If you decide to use the BBC's iPlayer you will also need to get the FoxyProxy add-on. I prefer not to, since streaming works great - even in HD, and you don't have to wait for the download.)

Step 4: Configure Tor. The easiest way to do this is to click the onion (Vidalia) icon on your desktop "Start TOR Browser". This launches the TOR Control Panel.

It also launches the Tor mini-browser. If you want to use this, go right ahead, but its only good for surfing non-flash / streaming sites, so not much help for watching TV online. Minimize it but don't close it, because if you do that closes Tor as well.

Step 5: Click the "Settings" button (screwdriver and wrench icon)

Step 6: Click "Advanced"

Step 7: Click "Edit current torcc" button.

Step 8: Here is the tricky part. The two lines you must add, just type them at the end, are:

ExitNodes {gb}
StrictExitNodes 1

The first line tells Tor to connect you to servers located in Great Britain. Yes, that is the fancy swirly bracket. There is a page of country codes somewhere if you need other locations. (like fr for France?)

The second line tells Tor to always obey the statement above, so in this case, only connect to a Great Britain based server, nothing else. If the first one tried is no good, try another and so on. This ensure you end up with a British IP address.

Step 9: Click Ok on this window, then click OK on the Advanced window. You should be back to the Tor control panel. Click Exit (red X). This closes Tor.

Step 10: Launch Tor again. This will load your settings (Great Britain located exit-nodes, only, right?) and connect you to the Tor network. Minimize the mini browser and the control panel.

Step 11: Launch your regular Firefox. Got the Tor Button installed (Step 2)? Click it. It changes from the big red x over the onion to a nice healthy green onion. The text at the lower right of your browser also changes from red "Tor disabled" to green "Tor enabled".

Step 12: Test your connection and then get watching! With Tor running and the Tor button on, go to http://www.google.com/. Magically, the domain changes to google.uk. The best of British to you, you are on your way. Surf on over to the BBC, and stream something. Site navigation (not streaming) can be a bit laggy, so be patient. The video is usually excellent quality, and for Doctor Who, available in HD. Isn't it great to be a subject of the Queen? Here are a few of my favorite places to visit:

Doctor Who Series 6 (Episodes 1-8 so far, the rest are coming this fall)

Torchwood: Miracle Day

* Watching a BBC show using a proxy server located in another country is legal, right?

Statement A: Connecting to a proxy server located in another country is legal, if you have their permission = TRUE

(Tor asks people to share their system bandwidth and join the Tor network. It can be used by political dissidents, people trying to hide (see Wired article link above) or people like me who want to conceal their country of origin for some reason - and I would argue a good reason.)

Statement B: Watching a BBC show on a computer located in Great Britain is legal - and the only way to watch a BBC show online = TRUE.

If A is true and B is true then A + B must also be true. Simple logic.

Put another way, you cannot watch the BBC's streaming video if you are not physically located in Great Britain. So if you can somehow watch their videos, you must be in Great Britain, right? So according to the BBC, we are not doing anything wrong. They won't really care, you are just one more viewer of a really great show that has lots of viewers.

Enjoy guilt free. After all, if the BBC suddenly thinks you are not a limey, the streaming will end. Just shut down and start up Tor again, and you should be golden. They will check for you, as a feature, to make sure you are not violating their terms. Its a win-win really. They won't actually let you do anything that is not on the up and up.

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