November 06, 2010

Update: How They're Blocking Google TV (with Screenshots)

Blog Update (November 24, 2010): How to *Bypass* the Blocking of Google TV by Hulu and Other Networks

Greetings. In Users as Toast: The Blocking of Google TV, I strongly criticized the blocking of the new Google TV (GTV) products by a range of network TV Internet services. In particular, I suggested that such selective blocking of specific hardware devices for other than legitimate technical reasons was not only inappropriate, but also should likely be considered illegal.

The inanity of this situation is further enhanced by the fact that users can display fullscreen images from these online networks directly from PCs equipped with HDMI ports (or via inexpensive DVI to HDMI adapters). So obviously the real issue "in play" isn't the simple blocking of large screen video displays per se.

A number of persons have asked me for more detailed information about how Google TV blocking is actually occurring. Let's look at a couple of preliminary examples today (many thanks to Google for providing me with a Google TV unit for these explorations and experiments). Links below point to associated screenshots and photos.

For all of these cases, a conventional Windows 7 PC and a Google TV box (Logitech Revue) -- both running a Chrome browser -- were connected to the same Ethernet switch, and accessed the Internet via the same NAT'd address during the test periods.

In practice, blocking of GTV is occurring at two different levels.

Hulu's GTV blocking clearly shows this in action. Upon first accessing the site, the GTV user immediately receives a Google TV We've noticed you using Google TV warning box, not presented to other users. It is possible to click through this box and browse the site, though that's basically sucker bait as we'll see.

This initial check by Hulu is apparently based on the Browser ID string (user agent). Google TV currently identifies by default as:

"Mozilla/5.0 (X11; U; Linux i686; en-US) AppleWebKit/533.4 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/5.0.375.127 Large Screen Safari/533.4 GoogleTV/b39953"

However, it is possible to change this ID through the GTV settings dialogue, either to a generic Chrome browser ID, or to a custom ID of the user's choice.

Switching to a generic string causes Hulu to no longer present the opening Google TV blocking notice box at all -- but don't get your hopes up.

By the way, it's worth noting at this point that some other sites also make use of the Browser ID to present GTV-specific user experiences, but not necessarily for blocking purposes. Crackle, for example, routes GTV users to a richer display format, but apparently makes all of the same content available.

Now as it turns out, browser client info is not the primary blocking mechanism being employed by Hulu, NBC, and other sites engaging in GTV blocking.

On all affected sites I've tested so far, the serious blocking occurs during the process of Flash video playback startup, where an "unsupported device error" will appear. Here's Hulu showing playback blocking on GTV. Here's GTV blocking from NBC and just for comparison, Windows playback success for NBC.

The trigger appears likely to be the Flash version ID embedded within the Google TV player -- contrast this with the Flash version ID information on the companion Windows PC.

Both Flash players are at functional level 10.1, further suggesting that the blocking of GTV is not motivated by a lack of technical playback capabilities. We can demonstrate that Flash playback is involved by calling up the standard Flash settings dialogue on the PC.

Unlike the browser client information, the GTV Flash player ID data cannot be reasonably altered by users to bypass Google TV blockades.

Imagine the protests that would ensue if Internet services arbitrarily blocked video only to Internet Explorer or Firefox browsers! Or if Hulu and the other networks decided they'd refuse to stream video to HP and Dell computers because those manufacturers hadn't made deals with the services to the latter's liking.

I'm not a lawyer, but this appears to be an utterly scandalous situation crying out for legal investigations. If this sort of invidious behavior on the part of Internet video services is allowed to stand in the case of Google TV, it will be difficult to argue against a veritable stampede of similar unacceptable practices by these and other services, aimed at an ever broadening scope of hardware and software systems, ISPs, and of course Internet users themselves.

This really isn't about Google TV or even Google itself for that matter. It's about the right of Internet users to access Internet services of their choosing -- in legal manners using technically compatible equipment of their choice -- without inappropriate and discriminatory interference of the sort we're seeing deployed against GTV.

Today it's Google TV that's being blocked. Tomorrow, you may be viewing these same sorts of blocking messages on an array of other devices -- including even your home PCs.

And that's a future that none of us should ever have to see.


Blog Update (November 24, 2010): How to *Bypass* the Blocking of Google TV by Hulu and Other Networks

Posted by Lauren at November 6, 2010 04:28 PM | Permalink
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