A week after denying rumors that it was cracking down on users who access the streaming service through virtual private networks, Netflix announced it’s in fact increasing efforts to block access via VPNs and other proxies. The goal is to block users who are circumventing regional restrictions in order to access Netflix’s full range of streaming content.
At a time where internet users across the globe are increasingly using VPNs to access content that may otherwise be blocked or subject to censure on copyright grounds, Netflix has more than its fair share of users relying on the tech. But what does the announcement really mean? Are Netflix users who access the service through a VPN going to wake up tomorrow to find they are no longer able to access the service, or is this a bit of a bluff on Netflix’s part to raise confidence with potential partners? Here’s what’s next.
What is a VPN?
At its most simplified, a VPN is a proxy service that allows a user to log onto the internet through his own internet service provider, but then access the web at large through a more secure, private network that grants a measure of anonymity by masking the user’s IP address. Of course, it’s important to point out that VPNs are not inherently nefarious; if anything, in an age where firewalls, antivirus software, and encrypted passwords have become a requirement, VPNs provide an extra layer of security. Large companies, universities, and even government offices use VPNs as an added measure to prevent hacking and the like.
For the purposes of Netflix, however, some customers have used proxies so they can access shows that are otherwise unavailable in various places due to regional licensing restrictions. For example, a user in Australia (where some one in three internet users use a VPN), accessing Netflix via an American IP address will in essence trick the Netflix service into thinking the user is located in the States. The VPN thus grants the Aussie access to content that would otherwise be blocked.
Why the regional restrictions?
Netflix streams content by signing contracts with studios, production companies, and distributors. However, the rights to any particular movie or TV show are often owned or leased by different companies, depending on the country or region. Users in Australia have access to only about one-tenth of the content available to U.S. customers. Netflix owns the U.S. rights to the hit series House of Cards, for instance, but in Australia, those rights belong to Foxtel. Until Netflix and Foxtel agree to do business, any Australian accessing Netflix to catch up on Francis and Claire’s escapades is doing so illegally.
With streaming Netflix service now offered in 130 countries, thousands of separate agreements need to be reached in order for the same content to become available in every territory. Netflix has pledged to make that happen, but such a laborious undertaking will take time. Netflix’s play in the meanwhile is to play both sides, discouraging VPN access but not pushing so hard as to piss off paying customers. However, the quick flip-flop from last week’s firm denial suggests that studios and distribution companies have been applying some added pressure.
In fairness to Netflix, if users are using the service to stream content in territories where the proper agreements haven’t been reached, that streaming is unlawful. It puts Netflix in the same territory as Pirate Bay or more appropriately Project Free TV. Yes, Netflix has all the right policies and procedures in place to protect itself legally, but as it’s trying to negotiate deals with content distributors across the globe, it behooves the company to at least look like it’s making an effort to protect its partners.
What should VPN users do now?
The obvious answer our legal department wants us to give you is that if you have been using a VPN to illegally access unlicensed Netflix content, you should probably stop and never do it again. But — y’know, hypothetically — it will be interesting to see how far Netflix goes to appease the studios and production companies. So far it appears Netflix has blocked the IPs of a few of the serial offending VPNs, but there’s just no easy way to block them all without prohibiting access to all customers who are using VPNs to access the service with the purest of intentions, or mistakenly denying access to folks using non-VPNs within the same IP range.
This feels like Netflix’s bark may be worse than its bite. If you’re currently able to access the streaming service through a VPN, chances are you will be able to continue to do so. It would require an amazing amount of resources on Netflix’s part to block every offending VPN without alienating the users who are streaming content legitimately. And with a fairly robust terms and service agreement in place already protects the company legally, it’s doubtful Netflix will risk offending its customers.
Of course, we know that none of our fine upstanding readers would ever try to access content unlawfully, but even if Netflix brings down the hammer, you should be fine. Chances are if you’re savvy enough to use a VPN, you’re savvy enough to know Netflix isn’t the only game in town.