Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll probably have heard the recent news that Netflix, the largest provider of film and TV streaming in the world, has made a commitment to block VPN users from accessing their content. This would mean users could only access the content made available in their own country – so for us Brits, the days of switching servers to get onto Netflix USA could be numbered…
…Except the news really isn’t so recent. In fact, we’ve been hearing rumours about VPN blocking from Netflix, Hulu and many other streaming sites for years.
So, aside from all the bluster, what’s the truth behind the recent story? Why do these companies want to restrict access, and what can we do about it?
Let’s begin with the basics:
What is geo-restriction?
Geo-restriction or geo-locking, is the practice of making any online content available only when accessed from a particular country. If you’ve ever tried to view a video only to see a message along the lines of “this content has not been made available in your location“, then you’ll know how frustrating it can be.
Netflix is probably the best-known example in the UK – for years we’ve been forced to used dodgy proxy plugins like Hola! or VPN services to get access to that holy grail… the Netflix USA library. The sad truth is that many new releases are made available in US long before they reach us over here and in the modern age of global communication (ie spoilers plastered all over Twitter) we simply don’t want to wait months for our favourite shows to make it across the pond.
Netflix isn’t the only offender though… virtually all TV streaming services (iPlayer, Hulu, Amazon etc), and increasingly music services (Spotify) and even tube sites (YouTube, Vimeo) are making certain content geo-specific.
Why do they want to block us?
Well… the truth is they probably don’t. At least in the case of Netflix – as recently as January 2015 they asserted that Netflix had no plans to crack down on the use of proxies and VPNs to access their content libraries.The problem is that while they’re increasingly making their own great shows, streaming sites like Netflix still primarily rely on contracts with traditional film and TV studios for the bulk of their content.
The big issue here is that the content-creators rarely want to sign over exclusive global rights to a single company like Netflix – they are still clinging to the old business model of selling their shows to broadcasters in individual countries to be shown on the traditional week-by-week basis on TV.
Hypothetical: imagine that you’re a broadcaster in the UK who has bought the rights to show ‘Happy Kitty Fun Time Show’ on a weekly basis on your channel. You sit back and wait for those viewing figures to roll in, only to discover that most of your target audience has already binge-watched the show online… you’re not going to be too chuffed.
While Netflix might only have that particular show available on their USA library, it’s been pretty simple up to now to hop on a VPN or Proxy and access it from the UK too. But Netflix then gets a backlash from the fusty TV executives because no-one wants to buy their shows for broadcast when they can be so easily watched online. This is a big problem for Netflix who rely on those same executives to sign over the streaming rights. Vicious circle time.
So as we can see, the big problem here is that Netflix and its competitors are still seen as interlopers into an industry whose methods hadn’t really changed in half a century. They aren’t ready for a globally connected world and still want to hang on to the old way of doing things. But that way is increasingly irrelevant. People are less and less willing to have their viewing schedule dictated by broadcasters – we want our content available immediately and we want the same content no matter where in the world we may be.
Netflix know this – after all they pioneered the online binge-watching model. If it was up to them they would likely make all of their content available worldwide at the same time. But while they’re still reliant on traditional media companies for their bread and butter, they need to be seen to be protecting that content. The previous stance of officially disapproving of VPNs while turning a blind eye simply won’t cut it.
Can they really block VPNs?
Up to now, the answer has been a firm ‘No’. While various streaming companies have been trying for years to block access by VPN, the very nature of VPNs has made it impractical to do so. You have to remember, though many of us use VPNs as a way of unblocking content, their number one purpose – their raison d’être – is privacy. They are designed to be untraceable and so for a company like Netflix, detecting and blocking them has always been a virtual impossibility. They’ve known that of course, so while there have often been statements made that VPN blocking went on, it seems these were more for the benefit of the aforementioned fusty TV execs than actual attempts to crack down.
So what’s different about this latest clampdown?
The big change is that this is the first time Netflix have stated that they will actively attempt to block VPN users, rather than the stance of passive disapproval they seemed to take before. If they’re really serious about taking action, there are a number of limits they might impose to make it more difficult to connect with a VPN:
This is the oldest trick, and is essentially no better than a bluff. The idea here is to make use of VPN blacklists which collect information about ‘exit points’ for popular VPN services. While such lists do exist, they are virtually impossible to maintain as VPN providers can simply alter their IP once they have been detected and blacklisted. If this was Netflix’s only defence against VPNs then there would be nothing to worry about – it simply isn’t a practical solution.
Many VPNs offer ‘Smart DNS’ options along with their standard VPN packages. These are an effective way of unblocking content, but are somewhat simpler for Netflix to block if they choose to do so. Because DNS unblocking is site-specific, Netflix can use a ‘forced-ping’ – making each user’s browser covertly ping an external address to see if the IP changes – any change would be an indicator to block the DNS servers. We’re aware that this practice goes on, so some Smart-DNS services may become less effective with the clamp-down, however it’s still fairly easy for them to alter IPs to get around this.
Block Shared IPs
This is the method likely to affect most VPN users, and could indeed make it more difficult to access geo-restricted content. Shared IPs are a common feature of VPN services – for the privacy-conscious they’re pretty much essential. By sharing an IP with hundreds of other users, it makes it impossible that any activity on that IP can be traced back to you directly.
It’s a feature we’d highly recommend, however for those looking to access Netflix, it may soon become a liability. When hundreds of users access Netflix from the same IP, it’s a dead giveaway that a VPN is being used – and then it’s trivial to blacklist the IP. This could become a real issue and we think it’s the mostly probable method they’ll be using in the latest clampdown.
That being said, there is a solution. Many VPN providers offer the option of having your own unique ‘static’ IP address. Some include this as standard, but for many it will mean paying a small additional fee. We wouldn’t recommend static IPs for general use if you are looking for top-of-the-range security, but if streaming is your thing then it’s probably worth looking into adding this extra to your VPN toolbox.
Billing Account Restriction
This is the big nasty… a method that could truly put an end to Netflix-Tourism. If they were to restrict access to the country that your billing address is registered to, Netflix could effectively ensure that every user can only access the content available in the country in which they originally signed up.
The good news is that it seems extremely unlikely that Netflix would take this step. It could end up costing them in the long run as many customers would likely be turned off by having their access restricted in such a heavy-handed manner. And we know that deep-down Netflix favour the global-release model… theyre just waiting for the rest of the industry to catch up.
So… Empty Threats or Time to Start Worrying?
On balance, neither. This is the first time Netflix has made VPN blocking it’s official policy, so we can’t assume it will be business as usual. As much as we think Netflix would prefer to make all their content available globally, for the time being they’re still responsible to the content creators and they may well take steps to actively block VPN-assisted video-tourism.
However, as we’ve seen, aside from restricting all users to the country of their billing address, any method they can use to attempt blocking VPNs is never going to be hugely effective. It’s always going to be a game of cat-and-mouse, so while you may find that a server you’ve used to access Netflix USA stops working, you’ll likely find another that works just fine. Barring an unforeseen shift in the technology used, there simply isn’t a foolproof way of keeping us out of geo-blocked content.
We’re pretty confident that it’ll stay that way for now. Unfortunately there is huge pressure from traditional media companies who are yet to make their way into the internet age. Sadly, if they do eventually get their way, the only outcome we can see is that people will be driven to piracy to access the latest content. That would be a huge shame – Netflix have been among the pioneers of a new way of consuming media that proved that people are more than willing to pay for quality content – but it must be delivered how we want it, when we want it. The way we consume TV, film and music has changed forever, and pushing backwards would mean everybody loses.