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Captain Marvel

Steam’s Beefed-Up VPN Ban is Anti-Competitive & Could Even Encourage Piracy

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Steam has implemented new measures to prevent VPN users from spoofing their locations to buy games at cheaper prices available in other regions. While that's Steam's choice, it's an anti-consumer move that has the potential to increase piracy - or worse.

Steam is the world’s most popular gaming platform for good reason. It does its best to provide users with the best possible experience coupled with broadly reasonable pricing.

However, in common with many online services, it is possible to buy content from Steam for less than the locally advertised prices. All users need is a VPN that makes it appear they’re in a country where the prices are set lower and they can save money.

How many people exploit this method is unclear but this week Steam Database reported that Steam has taken new measures to outlaw the practice.

Valve has recently made changing your store country more strict, which requires completing a purchase using a payment method from that country.

This should hinder the ability of using VPNs to buy games cheaper.

— Steam Database (@SteamDB) July 29, 2020

To be clear, Steam has had a VPN ban in place for years, with its terms of service requiring users to agree that they “will not use IP proxying or other methods to disguise the place of your residence, whether to circumvent geographical restrictions on game content, to purchase at pricing not applicable to your geography, or for any other purpose.”

Nevertheless, some users have obviously been ignoring the rules so Steam has decided to take additional measures to close the loophole. It’s Steam’s business and Steam’s decision but from a customer perspective in a global digital trading environment, it feels somewhat anti-consumer.

Any big business involved in international trade could explain in precise detail why it’s entirely reasonable to charge people in different countries more or less for exactly the same product. Sadly for them, most customers simply do not care and may even feel insulted when they learn that they’re a victim of geo-discrimination.

Imagine being in a regular shop where products have multiple price tags that get progressively more expensive depending on where you live and how much you potentially earn. In common with Steam’s restrictions, people would look to circumvent that system. And why not, doesn’t everyone enjoy getting a bargain and saving money?

The interesting thing here is that the average person probably doesn’t know about the VPN ‘trick’, so it’s much more likely to be exploited by tech-savvy users. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear these kinds of tips being shared on piracy sites, where people can easily get games for free but are actually prepared to buy them when the ‘VPN discount’ is applied.

The big question is how many of these people could turn to piracy when they are forced to pay full price for their games again. It’s impossible to say with any accuracy but price is a major issue for many people, as Steam itself recognizes when it gives lower prices and offers to residents of countries where it believes it can’t charge more.

Interestingly, there is another trick to get cheap games from Steam and elsewhere which, according to game developers themselves, is actually worse than piracy. So-called ‘key resellers’ are widely hated by devs, with some saying they’d prefer it if people pirated their content instead.

Given a choice between a ‘VPN discount’ and a key reseller, many price-sensitive users would choose the former. Following Steam’s new measures, there’s much less choice.


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