This article was authored by John C. Tanner, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.
When Netflix announced it would open its OTT video service in 130 more countries, one of the big questions among interested subscribers was: just how much of their content library will I be able to access?
The official answer: it depends on where you live, as not all Netflix content is licensed for global distribution. The unofficial answer: all of it, if you use VPNs or “unblocker” apps that fool Netflix’s servers into thinking you're logging in from a device physically located in the US.
Many subscribers have been doing this for years. While Netflix’s terms of service explicitly prohibit it, enforcement hasn't exactly been rigorous. In fact, within 24 hours of the Netflix global launch, my inbox filled up quickly with press releases promoting VPN solutions that would enable subscribers to (legally, they claimed) access all Netflix content.
Netflix has now declared that particular party over. On Thursday, David Fullagar – Netflix’s vice president of content delivery architecture – posted on the company blog that it’s going to take measures to reinforce geographical content restrictions:
Some members use proxies or “unblockers” to access titles available outside their territory. To address this, we employ the same or similar measures other firms do. This technology continues to evolve and we are evolving with it. That means in coming weeks, those using proxies and unblockers will only be able to access the service in the country where they currently are.
Fullagar said that while Netflix is working diligently to secure global licensing rights for all of its content, “we have a ways to go before we can offer people the same films and TV series everywhere.”
In the meantime, he said, “we will continue to respect and enforce content licensing by geographic location.”
But some aren’t convinced that Netflix’s promise to finally crack down on VPN users will amount to any meaningful enforcement. InternetNZ CEO Jordan Cartertold Stuff.co.nz that blocking VPN usage is a cat-and-mouse game:
"Each step that Netflix or other content providers take to the block things, the companies that make money by selling unblocking services will find a way around it."
"It turns this into an arms race."
It's instructive that Netflix supposedly tried this before. Around this time last year, some VPN providers began reporting access problems, leading to speculation that Netflix was bringing the hammer down, although Netflix said it wasn't doing anything new or different to combat VPN access. In any case, it didn’t take long for VPN providers to find a workaround, according to TorrentFreak.
Julia Greenberg at Wired adds that a VPN crackdown could also backfire:
Netflix, after all, is a consumer brand, and consumers in, say, the Philippines aren’t going to be happy to learn that they won’t be able to watch the shows and films that were able to view just last month. This ill will might lead fewer consumers to sign up to pay for the service in their home country (especially if the offerings are worse than what a user could have accessed via VPN). The crackdown could also encourage more piracy of both Netflix and Hollywood’s content instead, which is exactly what Netflix should be hoping to avoid.
Since it's safe to assume that Netflix is not unaware of all this, Greenberg speculates that the real purpose of Fullagar’s announcement is to put pressure on content creators to drop local and regional content licensing in favor of global licensing.
Which is possible. Note the very first sentence of Fullager's blog post:
If all of our content were globally available, there wouldn’t be a reason for members to use proxies or “unblockers” to fool our systems into thinking they’re in a different country than they’re actually in.