Netflix VPN Ban: Will This Really Work?

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

When Netflix announced at CES that it was rolling out its streaming service to users around the world, the Internet responded by pointing out that it was the perfect time to start using a VPN to mask your location and get easy access to tons more TV shows and movies than are made available by the version of the service intended for the region where you actually live.

Netflix, in turn, responded by announcing that it would begin cracking down on subscribers who use VPNs and proxies to access content that isn’t licensed in their geographic location. David Fullagar, the company’s vice president of content delivery architecture, wrote in a blog post that the streaming service “will continue to respect and enforce content licensing by geographic location” by preventing proxies and unblockers from being able to access the service for any country other than the one where they currently are.

Fullagar acknowledged that “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.” He noted that Netflix is “making progress in licensing content across the world,” but added, “we have a ways to go before we can offer people the same films and TV series everywhere. Over time, we anticipate being able to do so. For now, given the historic practice of licensing content by geographic territories, the TV shows and movies we offer differ, to varying degrees, by territory.”

While Fullagar refers to the practice of licensing content for specific geographic territories as “historic,” the company has a record of critiquing the way licensing has traditionally worked. As Broadcasting & Cable reported late in 2015, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said at the UBS Media Conference that “it has not been an easy road” to expand Netflix globally. Sarandos said that Netflix has encountered many issues dealing with studios whose content it wants to license globally, since “There has never been a global buyer.”

Sarandos explained that the status quo at studios is to use regional sales organizations, where “sales staff don’t want their jobs marginalized. It’s a pretty big structural change that all of our studio and network partners are trying to manage.” He added that Netflix isn’t looking to buy globally to generate discounts, but to obtain “availability of content.”

As Paul Sawers reports for VentureBeat, Netflix knows that the fight against VPNs is “doomed to fail,” due to the vast number of VPN and proxy services, and the speed with which they can circumvent any changes it makes to its software. But Sawers notes that Fullagar’s statement “was likely made to appease rights-holders around the world, those who have a vested interest in keeping content siloed.” That seems like a particularly apt analysis, particularly given the fact that just a few days prior, Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt was quoted in The Globe and Mail as characterizing the fight against VPNs and proxies as “a cat-and-mouse game.”

Hunt explained that while Netflix does use “industry standard technologies to limit the use of proxies,” using blacklists of VPN exit points maintained by companies that dedicate large amounts of time and effort to the undertaking, even that approach is easily circumvented. “Once [VPN providers] are on the blacklist,” Hunt noted, “it’s trivial for them to move to a new IP address and evade.”

Services that have been affected by Netflix’s crackdown have already found “fixes,” and Sawers notes that while Netflix’s efforts might cause some disruption to proxy services — and perhaps block some VPN services that don’t specifically set out to enable users to watch geo-restricted content — Netflix is going to be unable to keep up with the vast number of VPN and unblocking services available to users.

The upshot is that while Netflix has criticized the way that licensing deals are negotiated, and while the company would like the industry to drop the status quo so that it can offer a consistent library of content to users anywhere in the world, it needs to do what it can to stay on the good side of the companies that own the content that it and its users want.

That means that Netflix needs to at least keep up the appearance of doing everything it can to block VPNs and related services, even when it knows that doing so won’t really stop people from accessing content intended for other markets, and even though the company would prefer to give users everywhere access to the same content in the first place. That way, studios will be confident that Netflix is holding up its end of the bargain to protect their content and abide by licensing deals, in the hope that one day all of that content will be available to all of its users.

More from Gear & Style Cheat Sheet: