Future Tense

Australians and Canadians Are Turning to Virtual Private Networks to Access U.S. Netflix  

Australians and Canadians jump through technical hoops to enjoy the Netflix options Americans take for granted.

Photo by Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps we should thank the intractable cable TV providers of Canada and Australia. Because of their stranglehold over film and television rights, which continue to block decent streaming services like Netflix, Canadian and Australian Breaking Bad fans may, accidently, be some of the securest people online.

Netflix operates in Canada, but because of rights deals, Canadians can’t access the same amount of content as U.S. customers (4,000 titles compared with the American Netflix’s 10,000 or so—with popular shows missing, like the American version of The Office and 30 Rock). Australia has some homegrown streaming option but no Netflix, and people have to pay much more overall, often double the price, than the U.S. for music, film, and television. And yet recent reports suggest that there are an estimated 200,000 Australian Netflix customers and plenty of Canadians who are somehow getting past the geographically determined barriers around U.S. Netflix. So, how are these members of the Commonwealth freely perusing “witty workplace comedies”? All through the power of virtual private networks.

VPNs enable safer, more private Web browsing. Getting online via a VPN provides a secure connection by forwarding your request—say, to connect to Netflix—onto other computers in a network of computers linked together, masking your identity. It’s like connecting to your friend’s computer, then using Amazon as if you were browsing from inside their house—Amazon would see that their computer was contacting them, and not yours. If you’re overseas and geographic blockers are preventing you from accessing certain content, you can use a VPN to mask your location with an anonymous, and more or less stateless, IP address. And they’re easy to use: Some function as a browser extension that runs in the background, while others can be accessed after a simple log in.

So are useless geo-blocks creating a generation that’s accidentally adept at Internet security? It depends how safe you consider VPNs to be, and most importantly, on how much you trust your VPN provider. An article on TorrentFreak that details which VPN services take anonymity seriously, lays out some factors to consider: Does the service log IP addresses? Do they share information with third parties? If cable providers manage to convince Australian lawmakers that citizens using VPNs to get their hands on Netflix are potential criminals, you don’t want your VPN service to have your IP address and traffic recorded, ready and able to be handed over to authorities. And given Australia’s lackluster record on implementing smart Internet policy, that’s not entirely unrealistic.

The use of VPNs to access geographically blocked content is a growing annoyance to film and television studios and distributors that like their rights deals chopped up by country. In April of this year, Hulu, which offers content from FOX, NBC Universal, and Warner Bros, among others, began blocking users accessing the site via IP addresses linked to certain major VPN services—with the potential to impact U.S. VPN users who were simply using them to browse more securely.

I’m afraid my home country, Australia, is a virtual nest of what some might call piracy, especially on a per capita basis. (Leave your convict jokes in the comments.) Australians apparently amounted to 16 percent of all illegal downloads of Breaking Bad. Or take Game of Thrones, the Season 4 finale of which set a piracy record this year, with 1.5 million file-shares worldwide in the first 12 hours after it aired. A hefty share of that torrenting traffic came from Australia. The show is available there on the Pay-TV service, Foxtel, and some 500,000 Australians watched the final episode legally. Another half-million or so likely illegally downloaded the show.

But as Australian consumer group Choice says, Foxtel has only itself to blame. Aside from the clear annoyance of having to pay for cable packages—full of useless shows you don’t watch—Foxtel created an exclusive deal with HBO over Game of Thrones, which forced the show off venues where viewers could legally download it, like iTunes or Google Play.

In fact, an informal survey of my Aussie friends revealed that everyone is using VPNs, like Hola and TunnelBear, or at least know someone who is. Some are using services like Unblock-Us, which work across different devices, including iPhones and Xboxes, so that their Apple TV can tunnel through to Netflix and Hulu. As one told me, even his 50-year-old co-worker has set himself up with a U.S. iTunes account to get his hands on the cheaper prices and better options. Given Rihanna’s last album, Unapologetic, cost 49 percent more in Australia than the U.S. last year, he’s making the obvious choice.

Critics in both Australia and Canada have called the use of a VPN to access Netflix, or other geo-blocked content, stealing—but it’s not that simple. As Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, pointed out, creators are not paid per viewing of their product on most streaming services. Rather, Netflix pays a bulk licensing fee so that films can be watched an unlimited amount of time. Geist writes:

In other words, there are no additional payments to rights holders regardless of how many times a title is viewed during the licence period. In fact, a Canadian viewing a title on the U.S. Netflix would simply add to the number of views and potentially increase Netflix’s willingness to pay when the licence expires.

While the legality of using a VPN to access Netflix is fuzzy, given that Netflix’s terms of service stipulate that you can only access it in countries where they offer the service, accusations of stealing seem misguided. Not to mention, although they’re evading geo-blocks, Australian customers are still ultimately paying for the service.

There’s irony in recalcitrant cable providers being the spur that’s prompting Australian and Canadian Internet users to browse more securely and to value anonymity online. To conjure up a tenuous metaphor—Australians are just like the Wildlings. Their intentions aren’t bad—they’re just trying to get pass The Wall (using questionable methods) to revel in the safety of endless Game of Thrones episodes and the warm embrace of ”romantic comedies recommended for you.”