Netflix's Assault On VPNs Is Stupid, Annoying And Erodes User Security

from the international-charade dept

Earlier this year Netflix surprised everybody by announcing it was expanding into 130 additional countries, bringing its total footprint to 190 markets. But alongside the announcement came the less-welcome news that Netflix was also planning to crack down more on “content tourism,” or the act of using a VPN to trick Netflix into letting you watch content specifically licensed for other countries. If you take a look at what’s available per country, the motivation to use a VPN to watch content not available in your market becomes abundantly obvious.

And while the press and public engaged in a lot of hand-wringing about Netflix’s decision to crack down on VPN use, it really wasn’t much of a problem for most VPN providers to bypass Netflix’s restrictions. And indeed, if you’d been paying attention, you would have noticed Netflix basically admitting that this “crack down” wouldn’t be much of one, since even the company realized it was largely futile:

“We do apply industry standard technologies to limit the use of proxies,? (Netflix chief product officer Neil) Hunt says. ?Since the goal of the proxy guys is to hide the source it?s not obvious how to make that work well. It?s likely to always be a cat-and-mouse game. [We] continue to rely on blacklists of VPN exit points maintained by companies that make it their job. Once [VPN providers] are on the blacklist, it?s trivial for them to move to a new IP address and evade.”

So why is Netflix engaging in a practice it realizes is largely pointless? To try and calm global broadcasting partners terrified by the fact that Netflix is re-writing the rules of global television and eroding the power of global media empires unchallenged for the better part of a generation. Netflix still needs to strike licensing deals with many of these companies, and to do so these broadcasters need to see Netflix as a partner, not a threat. So to keep these companies’ executives calm, Netflix is basically giving a used-car-salesman-esque wink and saying “sure, we’ll make sure your outdated regional restrictions still hold,” even though Netflix’s publicly-stated goal is demolishing region restrictions completely.

All of that said, Netflix’s “crack down” on VPNs still has a notably negative impact on global user privacy and security. And as Dan Gillmor at Slate noted this week it’s just downright annoying for the millions of paying customers that use a VPN everyday as a part of their routine security and privacy arsenal:

“No doubt this pleases the Hollywood studios, the control freaks of copyright. From this video watcher?s perspective, it?s beyond annoying. I don?t download Hollywood movies or TV shows from torrent sites. I pay, willingly, for streaming and DVD rentals and, for some special films, an outright DVD purchase. Yet I?m being punished when I stream video because I also want security. So are countless others who want to do the right thing. Tens of thousands have signed an online petition asking Netflix to reconsider.”

It’s unlikely that Netflix plans to do much about this in the short term. It knows most VPN providers will continue to provide workarounds for customers who know better, and is apparently willing to alienate and annoy customers unwilling or unable to switch VPN providers for the temporary, artificial benefit of its broadcaster relationships. If Netflix continues to be successful the good news will be that regional restrictions will die; the bad news is it’s relatively clear the company doesn’t give a damn about the repercussions as we wait the decade or longer it’s going to take Netflix to actually accomplish this.

Filed Under: , , , ,
Companies: netflix

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Netflix's Assault On VPNs Is Stupid, Annoying And Erodes User Security”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
That One Guy (profile) says:


“No doubt this pleases the Hollywood studios, the control freaks of copyright. From this video watcher’s perspective, it’s beyond annoying. I don’t download Hollywood movies or TV shows from torrent sites. I pay, willingly, for streaming and DVD rentals and, for some special films, an outright DVD purchase. Yet I’m being punished when I stream video because I also want security.

Treat your customers like criminals for long enough and it’s pretty much a given that at least some of them will start to wonder just why they’re paying in the first place if the treatment is no different from the ‘free’ option. Get a reputation for treating your customers like that and a notable amount of would-be-customers won’t even try the pay option, given they’re essentially paying to be treated as though they hadn’t.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

So profits then, squeezing as much money out as possible. Which is fine for the most part until you realize that the same companies trying to use regional restrictions to maximize profits also have a tendency to shop around and see where they can have their products created the cheapest. ‘We’re allow to use the global marketplace to get the best price, you’re not’ isn’t really an idea that holds up as fair.

However even that doesn’t cover the instance where regional restrictions mean that something flat out isn’t available in a given area, and as a result there isn’t any chance for profits because it’s not available to be purchased.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

…regional restrictions to maximize profits also have a tendency to shop around and see where they can have their products created the cheapest…

If you’re talking about physical goods that’s true, but there’s a transportation element that comes into play. A record label, for example, might license several companies on various continents to manufacture their product rather than pay shipping costs from one country to the rest of the world. Alternatively the company may decide their record will be sold only in the country of manufacture and any neighboring countries and not worry about licensing or shipping to other parts of the world; if the record becomes a best seller then they’ll look to further manufacturing and distribution.

Digital goods, on the other hand, once ‘in the can’ have very little distribution costs. If anything the company has to get the word out their product exists so people can buy & download; sticking it on a shelf in a retail store doesn’t work too well with digital goods (not that it always worked with physical goods but that’s another story). Thus the company might need publicity offices or contract with various advertising agencies around the world. So if a digital product is not available in one country or continent it’s because of selfishness, spite, or whatever reason; it’s not due to distribution/shipping costs.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Regional restrictions exist so that people in wealthier areas can be charged more money, while people living in poorer areas can still pay a price they can afford.

Then why the regional restrictions on Netflix between the US, Canada, Australia and Europe? Why does DVD region coding have North America, Europe and Japan in different regions?

Why are regional restrictions enforced against consumers but not corporations? The answer:

You’ve heard of High Court / Low Court, where the wealthy and powerful get off scot free for crimes that would put us little people in jail for a long time. Investment fraud, lying to Congress, offshore tax havens etc.

There’s also High Market / Low Market. Corporations can move jobs overseas at will. They can buy goods and materials overseas. They bribe/lobby to have trade in services and investor protection included in all the hot new international trade agreements.

Consumers get the Low Market. Those who buy goods from second world countries and sell them in North America at second world prices, tend to get bankrupted in court. DVDs come region-coded to keep the markets separate. Canadians are blocked from watching Daily Show clips linked to on many web sites. Canadians who pay for the American Netflix selection get declared thieves. And their consumer, environmental and job safety rights are overridden by the ISDS rules in the new treaties.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not quite right.
It’s about money, that’s for sure, but the reason is a little more complex.

Publishers want to strike deals with local distributors. Some distributors want exclusivity in their respective countries, and most wouldn’t want to pay a worldwide license anyway. (Remember that the legacy industries mostly consider TV broadcasters as distributors.)

It was a system that – more or less – worked in the TV era. Internet changes the rules, being a worldwide network, so rights owners and local distributors alike try to resist the change.

For local broadcasters, internet makes them irrelevant.
For rights owners, striking multiple local deals is way more profitable than a single global license anyway.
So neither is happy if regional licenses are not enforced.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Regional broadcasters don’t want to pay for global rights (for obvious reasons) but do want exclusive regional rights. Hollywood is happy to sell those and then everyone else is locked out of licensing the content in that region. Netflix doesn’t have House of Cards in some countries because local broadcasters and others snapped up the rights first. If Netflix distributes the show in those regions, it’s the regional players who get upset. It will stay like this for as long as there are regional TV broadcasters willing to pay for regional exclusive rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

Annnnnd this is why I'm not a Netflix customer

I pirate what I want (which isn’t much anyway, and most of it is decades old) because if I sign up for Netflix, and if I pay them money, they will defraud me by refusing to deliver the service I’ve paid for by virtue of the IP address my traffic originates from.

So exactly why should I bother trying to pay them for a service that they’ve explicitly said they won’t deliver?

Roger Strong (profile) says:

> If you take a look at what’s available per country, the motivation to use a VPN to watch content not available in your market becomes abundantly obvious.

Just wait until this year when the situation is suddenly reversed. Netflix will be showing Star Wars: The Force Awakens only in Canada.

In the US, Disney has a deal in place with premium channel Starz for movies released through the end of 2015. Disney has a new with Netflix for movies released after January 1, 2016, but The Force Awakens was released earlier.

That streaming probably won’t happen until late summer or early fall, after another six months of Trump coverage and shortly before his election. It’s like a perfect storm for Canadian immigration.

Anonymous Coward says:

i would think that Netflix has been told to do this by the MPAA with the threat of cancelling the contract if it doesn’t. the problem, yet again, is the MPAA doing whatever it can to not only make as much money as possible for doing as little as possible, but to keep the strangle hold on the movie business for as long as possible. while politicians keep being ‘encouraged’ to do whatever the movie industry says, there will be no change. i’m waiting to see who goes after VPN companies next and what harm will come about if they get stopped from existing. businesses rely on them every day. it would be interesting to find out how that carries on out in the open!

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s no different than paying for cable TV before VCRs. Or electricity or road tolls or to see a movie in the theatre. You’re paying for a service, not an object.

Where it gets dishonest and sleazy is where the streaming service has an “Own it now!” button or claim. The same goes with most anything else with DRM, since they tend to be orphaned and the ability to play the media lost.

This gets to the heart of the problem with shrink-wrap software agreements, media DRM, required online activation and the DMCA: You can truly own an object, but never a service. And yet here they are, selling services, treating them legally as services, and yet treating them as objects in the sales pitch.

Colin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…but that isn’t really much different than your cable or satellite TV bill, if you have one – you don’t really posess any of that programming either. I don’t know what your situation is like, but my combined Internet and Netflix bill is less than my satellite bill – a service that I see going away in the next couple of months, once its warm enough to go outside and install an HD antenna in place of the dish….

Colin (profile) says:

Re: Maybe Netflix should. ..

We’ve talked about this around our office a fair bit as our engineers travel around the world for business and want their Netflix in some form (we are based in Canada by the way).

The first problem I see with your suggestion is physical internet connections around the world… an example is China – if you stay in a major brand hotel in some locations they have agreements with the Chinese government to bypass parts of the Great Firewall (TM) and allow VPN usage so you can actually watch Netflix over there (its complicated politics and business). However, the major pipe back to North America goes to the LA area so that is the best location for VPN connectivity if you want to stream stuff. I’ve tried connecting to my Toronto VPN location from Taicang and the Netflix experience is almost unusable, whereas connecting to LA is tolerable.

Kronomex (profile) says:

On a side note: I thought I would try the free month that Netflix offers here (Australia) and after roughly an hour cancelled the account. To watch anything they wanted me to turn off just about every security add-on…oh yes, and private browsing, I have in Firefox. Two word thought reply to that, “Get stuffed!” As it was I found a whole ONE program that I would liked to have watched, a documentary about Whitey Bulger. Netflix Australia is a pale, near transparent, ghost of the US setup.

QW says:

Let me get this straight… If I’m already using a VPN, my choices are to continue paying for netflix and turn off my VPN…

… or to stream from (illegal but free) sites that haven’t paid for any licenses and leave my VPN on…

and as a bonus, option two neatly circumvents most of the perceived risks of streaming from an illegal site?

This’ll crack down on piracy all right.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

Oddly enough, if Netflix hadn’t done this, I probably wouldn’t have bothered looking for ways around it. As it is, I can now access their entire catalogue — with or without VPN active. Before they did this, I didn’t really pay much attention, and would have continued to settle for the U.S. catalogue. For the most part.

I was using a U.S. IP address while in the U.S., so I’m not sure how I was actually violating any regional restrictions. But now? Fuck ’em. They asked for this.

Colin (profile) says:

Interestingly enough I was caught by this net last night. I’m in the US on business and was connecting to a US VPN node at my hotel, which I always do when on a network that could have security problems. Anyway, Netflix popped up the now annoying “oops you seem to be using a proxy – turn it off you bad boy” message. Took about 2 minutes of flipping between various servers offered up by my VPN service to find one that wasn’t blocked.

I do wonder how long it will be before Netflix starts paying out millions in fees to lawyers to battle the inevitable lawsuits by American users who cannot access content they paid for, in their own country, unless they lower their personal security settings.

Colin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You can’t be thinking about the same United States as I am. Lawsuits because coffee is too hot? Lawsuits over footwear choices? I could go on….Filing a lawsuit over increasing the risk of being hacked is almost sane in comparison…

Connecting to the internet via an unsecured AP at a hotel (which I do frequently) is nothing short of irresponsible and every time I’ve done a speed test using my VPN while at home, my 60Mb connection has been no slower than 55Mb so I can’t complain about a slowdown there, since I don’t need more than about 3Mb for SD and 5Mb for HD.

Anonymous Coward says:

Who needs Netflix if they have a proper VPN? I have never used or been present when their service was used. If I pay for a service and you can no longer provide it I will take my business elsewhere. It is also no ones business but my own what I choose to watch, as long as no one is physically harmed without their consent to participation, or exploited. If you can not give me the benefit of the doubt I can no longer be a productive member of your society.

Jimmy says:

Now, It’s really difficult to access Netflix from outside US. I usually use Netflix to watch TV series. I tried proxies to access Netflix, but couldn’t succeed. I have come to know that Netflix is detecting users real IP with some DNS-browser trick like WebRTC. One of my friends told me that he is using using hide-my-ip VPN and with the DNS setting he can easily access to Netflix. I have been using this VPN for more than 15 days and it works perfectly.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...