The popular Internet movie streaming service Netflix has started blocking subscribers who use VPN software that enables them to bypass geographical restrictions.
Many people with a Netflix subscription in their home country like to watch it abroad when they’re on holiday, but normally the service is blocked to comply with movie studio requirements. If you have ever tried to access Netflix in Thailand (or other services such as the BBC iPlayer), you’ll no doubt be aware that it’s usually impossible to watch as the content is restricted based on your location.
But Virtual Private Network (VPN) software allows you to configure your intended location and appear as if you were in another country like the U.S., thus allowing full access to the service intended for that country.
Netflix takes action
Recently, Netflix has been taking action against people using such tools – for example the Android Netflix app now forces you to use Google’s DNS servers, making it more difficult to use DNS-based location un-blockers. Additionally, they have started to block certain known VPN IP address ranges. The move by Netflix comes as the studios seem to want more control over what people can watch and where.
At the time of writing not all VPN users are experiencing problems accessing Netflix, but one of the VPN providers – TorGuard – noticed lots of access problems by its users since December 2014.
“This is a brand new development. A few weeks ago we received the first report from a handful of clients that Netflix blocked access due to VPN or proxy usage. This is the very first time I’ve ever heard Netflix displaying this type of error message to a VPN user” – TorGuard’s Ben Van der Pelt
Netflix is reportedly experimenting with several blocking methods, such as querying the time zone of the user via the browser or mobile device’s GPS, and comparing that to the timezone of their computer’s IP address. Pretty sneaky and annoying for VPN users, but it is of course a legitimate thing to do in accordance with their terms and conditions.
Movie studios enforce new rules
The movie studios, including Sony Pictures (who was the recent target of a cyber-attack allegedly by North Korea), are also starting to force Netflix to verify that its users are in the real locations they claim.
Netflix has been told by Sony that it has to “use such geolocation bypass detection technology to detect known web proxies, DNS based proxies, anonymising services and VPNs which have been created for the primary intent of bypassing geo-restrictions.”
It appears that Netflix will implement more blocking tools and methods over the next few months, though it’s likely that the measures may also cause problems for people who use VPNs for privacy and security reasons.
Unfortunately, other streaming services are also targeting VPN and proxy users – Hulu has also rolled out similar restrictions. It remains to be seen how Netflix users who watch in Thailand via a VPN will be affected.
UPDATE: we have since learned Netflix claims there is “no change” in the way that it handles VPNs. So it’s not clear why the blocking issues have started to show up in the past few weeks, after all…