Why Netflix's Crusade Against VPNs Is Pointless

Netflix has sent the world into a frenzy of anxiety by announcing they will be trying to restrict users to only viewing content licensed to the country where they are physically located. This effectively means stopping customers from using a variety of techniques to circumvent geographical restrictions. Getting around "geoblocked" services is relatively easy and can be done using a VPN or proxy service provided by one of many companies that now provide these technologies.

Although Netflix is now available in 190 countries, the content in 189 of those countries falls far short of the content provided in the US. To access this content, tens of millions of users have been using VPNs to make their computers look like they are located in the US.

Until very recently, Netflix has denied that they would try and block VPNs, claiming that it would be impractical to do so. Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt has stated that they try and block VPNs using "blacklists" of addresses used by VPN providers but that this approach is never effectively going to block people using this approach from accessing content.

It seems those comments may have provoked the ire of other license holders and another Netflix senior staff member, David Fullagar, VP of Content Delivery Architecture who followed up with a blog post that directly contradicted the earlier statements by Hunt. Fullagar took pains to stress that

"we will continue to respect and enforce content licensing by geographic location."

He stated that Netflix already did attempt to block VPNs but that this technology would somehow be applied more aggressively in the "coming weeks".

The truth of the matter however is that Netflix will indeed find it difficult to shut down VPN access to another country's content. VPN provider TorGuard for example has already declared that:

"For those of you who rely on TorGuard VPN service to unblock Netflix content unrestricted, you don't have to worry. Netflix will be pushing this plan forward soon, and when that happens, TorGuard will immediately deploy new server IP addresses so users can still bypass blocks."

TorGuard and other VPN providers will be able to keep switching Internet addresses of their VPNs faster than Netflix will want to block them. Other services like Hulu for example have tried to block VPNs far more aggressively than Netflix in the past and have had limited success.

VPN providers now represent a significant business group and there is little chance that they will simply stand by and lose their customers if Netflix succeeds.

There is also the fact that Netflix runs the real danger that if it is successful in blocking access to US content in particular, it could potentially start losing subscribers in large numbers.

Netflix has historically not wanted to shut down global access of content and is actively striving to license future content on that basis. Opposing this will be other services who want exclusive rights to content in their own geographies and the content owners who believe they can maximise the amount of money they make from their content by parcelling up licenses geographically.

Netflix has had to maintain a delicate balance between showing the content holders that they are serious about restricting their content, and at the same time giving their customers what they really want. Fullagar's comments about blocking VPNs seem to be more about appearances than a serious shift in how they restrict their content.

Customers globally are increasingly expecting a single digital market where the same content is made available at the same time, worldwide. Companies that are working to this model are really the ones that will succeed on a global basis because they will be giving customers what they want.

If content providers don't adapt, they are likely to lose out to the companies like Netflix, Amazon and others who will provide content and make it available equally on a global basis.

In the meantime, in the very unlikely event that Netflix manages to block the known VPN providers, consumers could turn to creating their own private VPN service. It's a war that cannot be won.

David Glance, Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Comments

    Just curious, what is stopping them from seeing you signed up on an Australian credit card and restricting you to that region?, obviously it would suck if you went overseas on a holiday and cant watch netflix, but that seems like the most efficient way to "solving" this "issue"

      My guess is that Credit Card info is probably encrypted and even trying to script a way to sort who has a non-US credit card might cause security or privacy issues. I dunno, I'm not a programmer, but it might not be possible to do. I think people can pay with PayPal too, so it wouldn't be a totally effective solution anyway.

        Credit card information may be encrypted, but, there's always a way for them to find out, from which geographical location you belong to.

        For instance, Country, Street Address, contact number. They could even do a traffic analysis or a browser detection. There's always a way for them, to figure out, where you are geographically from.

      I wondered this too! But then thinking about it I'm not sure they can gather that information based solely on a credit card number and expiry ,etc. This seems like personal information that only the financial institution would know and wouldn't willingly give it out. On the other hand you could associate accounts with postal addresses but then there is no way to prove said address is or isn't yours?

        It's not that hard. The credit card number includes information about the bank of issue (see http://www.businessinsider.com.au/credit-card-numbers-meaning-2014-7) which could then be cross referenced to country.

        Last edited 28/02/16 8:40 pm

    As for the effectiveness of blocking IP addresses... It's slowly but surely becoming effective! (for some) Only in the last 24 hours has the majority of Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN provider has been blocked. All the different US servers. This was posted in the previous Lifehacker thread about the block and users have said they contacted PIA and they responded by basically saying they don't want to rock the boat as they are based in the US? What needs to happen on the VPN providers side would be a large pool of public IP's that can just be switched out at a timed or manual intervals. I have no doubt that this is already happening.
    IF you don't want to roll the dice each time you try netflixin then I suggest you roll your own VPN server on Docker or Amazon AWS. Small server instances cost hardly anything (some offer pay by the hour ,etc) Docker and other cloud hosting providers offer access to imagehub wherein you can simply download a pre-made image of your choice...an OpenVPN server image for example ;) and even if you do get block its a simple click of a button to request a new IP.

      Wouldn't it be reasonable for Netflix to block all aws and similar cloud provider IP ranges, since there isn't really a case for a server streaming Netflix?

        Amazon AWS powers thousands of websites and apps, you can't just block the IP's. And the small instance you spawn isn't going to announce "i'm a netflix streaming server (whatever that is)" It's merely another computer streaming netflix as far as netflix or any other server is concerned.

          Sure they can. Unless AWS sells IP space for home user connections, rather than AWS instances, there are ZERO home users streaming on AWS IP space. Thus the entire AWS range could be blocked with any netflix or netflix partner AWS instances whitelisted.
          Heck, just start blocking ASNs that don't provide home-user IP space.

      Sounds promising.
      Maybe there could be a future article, describing exactly how to set this up.

        Unlikely, as that might be deemed as aiding "piracy" (because streaming from another region to your own is now piracy, apparently)

      Got booted with PIA VPN this weekend. PIA apparently will not try to contravene Geoblocking by Netflix unlike most VPN and DNS services. Will be ditching PIA when my year is up, signing up for Uflix for the meantime and then going with Torguard or someone similar. I'm happy to pay for the content but the rights holders sure do seem to enjoy making us dance before they let us give them the moneys. If Geoblocking screws are tightened further by Netflix, only then I will revert to my lawless ways to watch my stories; all my stories, and not just the paltry collection that is Netflix Australia.

        I'm with PIA also as was so pissed when it finally stopped working. I've still got 8 months left on mine and TorGaurd is way more expansive and slower from my experience (I used to use them) and who's to say that they won't also eventually get blocked. Unless TorGuard keeps buying address blocks?

      It appears they've already stopped that option...

      "Netflix also appears to have moved to block users that created their own VPN using a self-hosted server. The company has blocked entire IP address ranges from DigitalOcean, Linode and Amazon Web Services in an effort to prevent the tactic."

      http://thenextweb.com/apps/2016/02/29/netflix-users-cry-out-as-it-aggressively-blocks-hacks-that-give-access-to-us-library/

        Thanks for that!
        it's so sad, netflix is a good service but if they keep this up they are going to lose so many customers and people will just resort to piracy again as you said

          I still have a few VPN services to try. I will give them a try, if else fails, I will cancel my Netflix subscription and revert to my old trusted Plexmedia server... Sorry NetFlix but you leave me with no choice, but to Pirate...

            Don't bother I've tried so many, made my own on VPS's ,etc all the IP ranges are blocked! The ONLY service i can confirm working right now is http://smartflix.io Downside is it's only for Mac and Windows :( but hey it works. but of course it's more money! wondering if Netflix is even worth it anymore. TBH i mostly use to find find stuff to watch. Just about everything on there can be found on torrent/usenet

    The question is this — is it Netflix' crusade, or the crusade of the content owners? I think Netflix are being forced down this path. It's time to change this entire idea of borders, location, geoblocking and region coding. Get rid of them. Embrace the model that will inevitably come.

      Yer for sure it's not netflix. This VPN crusade came on the back of more distribution rights in more countries. It was most likely a stipulation in a contract that they needed to shore up geo-evaders.

        Definitely not netflix. Netflix openly wants global catalogues and wants to do away with region locking. It's definitely the studios clinging onto a 1960s model that clearly doesn't work.

    To solve this situation requires that Netflix and other global distributors get ALL the licenses to content and others don't muck things up by snapping up non-global exclusives because they are not global distributors and can't serve content globally. Which means Netflix needs to be global (it isn't quite yet); it needs to have a few global competitors like Amazon and HBO (who seem to be in no great hurry) and non global distributors - cable, broadcast and local streaming services - need to stop licensing content for which there is global demand, meaning they need to give up a core part of their business, which will of course drive them under. They're not going to do that willingly, so the solution is for people to stop giving them their money so they will go away.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now