How Netflix, HBO, ESPN punish international travelers

Several popular services don't work in many places outside the U.S., penalizing paying subscribers. This makes no sense in 2013. The services - and Hollywood - are to blame.

Netflix does not allow American customers to stream outside the US, as you can see from this message served up in India.

I am writing this post sitting in New Delhi, India, as I wind up a trip that included several social-media talks to mark the centennial of Columbia Journalism School.

Thanks to apps like Apple's FaceTime and the free texting-and-calling service Viber, I was able to connect in better ways with my wife and kids than on any international trip I've ever been on.

But I also was deeply disappointed by one aspect of technology on this trip. And it was the fact that some services that I use regularly in the U.S. don't work overseas.

Here's my list of apps/services that love that I couldn't get to work in India: Netflix, HBO Go, and WatchESPN.

While I know there are complicated reasons, especially rights issues with Hollywood, for such services to have constraints outside the U.S., this is unacceptable in 2013.

HBO Go does not work outside the U.S.

These are services I pay a monthly fee for -- directly, in the case of Netflix; via my monthly cable subscription, in the case of HBO Go; and via my overall cable account, in the case of WatchESPN. I believe these systems should be able to track my account in a way that allows me to access them even when I am abroad.

At a time when so many Americans travel the globe on work, it's only right that paying subscribers have a way to take their services with them when they travel.

All this will eventually change, but why not sooner rather than later? (I wonder: if a customer travels abroad for a couple of weeks, do these services offer a refund or credit for those weeks, the way you can suspend newspapers while you are away and get credit for them?)

Netflix does have streaming available in some other regions, including Latin America and Europe as you can see from these pages, but I guess the settings for U.S. customers restrict access elsewhere.

HBO Go promises "anywhere" and "unlimited" and "wherever you go" -- but that's not the case.

Workarounds exist
There are plenty of ways to get around these restrictions, most notably by using a VPN to access the Internet, thus masking your true location. When I complained about the Netflix issue on Twitter, several people responded with workarounds, such as TunnelBear and HideMyAss.

Here's how HMA describes itself: "Use our free proxy to surf anonymously online, hide your IP address, secure your internet connection, hide your internet history, and protect your online identity."

But that's the problem using any of these services: they make you feel like you are doing something dirty you need to hide. Since anyone who can do a Google search can get around the Netflix/HBOGo/WatchESPN restrictions anyway, why force legitimate, paying customers to sully themselves in the first place?

Spotify works
Fortunately, another service I pay for did work beautifully in India: Spotify. I pay $10 a month for the unlimited version and I was able to access the full library and download songs for offline listening. From all I've read about the music industry, its executives are as fanatical about rights as their counterparts in the movie/television industry. So I never thought I'd be praising how anyone in the music business handles global access. But here I am, doing just that.

How about disconnecting?
I should point out that my favorite response to my complaint about the lack of Netflix came from @Krupali, who tweeted: "@sree when you travel, you should see the city - not watch movies. #justsaying #disconnect #eatchaat #gotomarinedrive" (Chaat, by the way, is a delicious Indian appetizer and Marine Drive is part of Mumbai's famous waterfront.)

How do you deal with accessing some of these services when you travel? And are there other services with similar restrictions? Please post your thoughts in the comments below.

Also, click to view the Storify versions of my Mumbai and Delhi panels.