A few days ago, in a hotel room in Phoenix, I opened my laptop and decided to watch a few minutes of a film on Netflix. Nope. Instead of Groundhog Day, I was presented with a message from Netflix: “Whoops, something went wrong … You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again. For more help, visit netflix.com/proxy.”
So I went to that page and learned that “[t]his error occurs when our systems have detected that you are connecting via a VPN, proxy, or ‘unblocker’ service. Because our content library can vary by region and these types of connections are frequently used to bypass geolocation methods, you will not be able to stream when connected in this way.”
Indeed, I was using a VPN, or virtual private network. I always use a VPN when I’m connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi—which we also use at home—and even on a wired connection outside the house. Why? Because I want to reduce the chances that I’m being spied on or hacked. The VPN connection runs encrypted data from my computer to the servers operated by the virtual network provider, which then relays my Internet traffic to and from various destinations including the Web and my email.
Netflix’s interest in VPNs isn’t about the privacy protections they offer. It’s about accommodating Hollywood’s insistence on geographic content restrictions. Because the Netflix streaming catalog is thinner in other countries, some people overseas use VPNs to make it appear that they’re in the United States, connecting to servers based inside the U.S. so they’ll get access to more content. To “fix” this, Netflix decided to simply block everyone who’s using a growing number of VPN services. In an earnings call in January, shortly after the announcement of tighter policing of VPNs, Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, termed this an “expanded and enhanced blacklist.”
No doubt this pleases the Hollywood studios, the control freaks of copyright. From this video watcher’s perspective, it’s beyond annoying. I don’t download Hollywood movies or TV shows from torrent sites. I pay, willingly, for streaming and DVD rentals and, for some special films, an outright DVD purchase. Yet I’m being punished when I stream video because I also want security. So are countless others who want to do the right thing. Tens of thousands have signed an online petition asking Netflix to reconsider.
Netflix makes pious excuses about all this, and along the way has also made some statements that are, at the very least, misleading. In the earnings call, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said, “And remember, all of our originals are fully global. They go live in every country at the same time around the world.” If that’s true, then I should be able to access original material even when I am using a VPN—after all, the reason Netflix is blocking VPNs is that it doesn’t want people to see content not available in certain countries, right?
But originals get blocked, too—or at least as of right now they do. I just checked to see whether I could watch the latest season of House of Cards, but all I saw was the get-lost screen. Given Netflix’s stated reasons for blocking VPNs, this is a mockery of logic and a further insult to paying customers.
Hastings said the company doesn’t expect any business impact from its moves. Perhaps it’s counting on the VPN companies and others to keep providing workarounds. (I have one, which involves another kind of secure connection.) But this move, and the company’s increasingly limited streaming catalog and shrinking collection of DVDs, tells me that Netflix thinks it’s so big that it doesn’t have to care about what some of its best customers want. This has soured me on the company in a serious way, so much that I’ve sold my small holding of Netflix stock. I’m also reconsidering my subscription, though for now I’m keeping the account.
It’s worth noting, meanwhile, that Amazon streaming continues to work just fine with my regular VPN. (Disclosure: I own a small number of Amazon shares.) Given Hollywood’s transcendent greed, however, I suspect it’s a matter of time before this changes for the worse.
Streaming entertainment is a marvel of convenience, and we have a vast amount of terrific entertainment available these days. But as streaming services become an oligopoly in their own right, they’re foreclosing some choices. We can expect more and more restrictions over time.
The truly dumbfounding thing about the Netflix VPN blocking is how counterproductive it will be for the entertainment cartel in the end. Hollywood’s approach to everything digital has never been a carrot; it’s always been the stick of hardline enforcement. The brilliance of Netflix was its carrot approach: making it convenient to pay.
What’s the alternative? Unfortunately, some people may rediscover torrent sites and other ways to infringe copyrights via unauthorized downloads: Thanks to moves like Netflix’s, they have an even brighter future.