Netflix says it wants to block proxies and VPNs. Can it?

Can Netflix really stop the most determined of users from accesssing their content?

Can Netflix really stop the most determined of users from accesssing their content?

ANALYSIS: The news that Netflix is cracking down on people circumventing their geographic restrictions has been met with a lot of anguish, and a lot of scepticism.

Both savvy and casual Netflix customers have long made use of proxies and VPN services to access the American version of the streaming service.

These services differ in detail, but essentially do the same thing - they tell Netflix (or any other website) that your traffic is coming from the United States, not New Zealand. (They can also spoof your location to another country, in case you were interested in what the internet looks like for Canadians.)

InternetNZ CEO Jordan Carter: "It turns this into an arms race."
Supplied

InternetNZ CEO Jordan Carter: "It turns this into an arms race."

Netflix-aimed VPNs and proxies have proved immensely popular, and it isn't hard to understand why. The American version of Netflix offers over a thousand TV shows and almost 5000 films, while the New Zealand version offers just under 500 TV shows and around 1500 films - but both services cost approximately the same.

Netflix has historically turned something like a blind eye to the litany of services, even denying that they were cracking down on them last year.

Today's announcement is likely aimed at placating content-producers, who see geo-dodging as "stealing".

READ MORE: Netflix shutting off proxy access to US version

 



Notably, it provides absolutely no detail on how exactly Netflix plan to crack down on such services, and requests by Stuff for further comment on what steps will be taken have so far been fruitless.

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Experts argue that any total shutdown would be impossible.

"It's kind of a cat and mouse game," InternetNZ CEO Jordan Carter said.

"Each step that Netflix or other content providers take to the block things, the companies that make money by selling unblocking services will find a way around it."

"It turns this into an arms race." 

Essentially - Netflix can block a single VPN or proxy server's IP address easily, but those services can change their own address just as readily. Netflix product manager Neil Hunt acknowledged the futility of such efforts as recently as this month, saying it was "trivial" for services to evade any blacklist.

Even if they manage to shut down whole services others are likely to replace them in a matter of days. The services that charge money for VPN access have a clear motive to get around any Netflix restriction, as their entire business model is built on giving user's access.

Meanwhile, Netflix's profits aren't directly harmed at all by users geo-dodging - in fact they may be increased. As such, the VPNs are likely to put a lot more effort into getting around the blocks than Netflix will put into creating them.

One left-field argument holds that Netflix are only cracking down on VPNs as part of a grand strategy to enter the massive Chinese market - if the elites can't access it on the sly, maybe they will have to let the masses in.

MAKING IT HARD, NOT IMPOSSIBLE

Netflix will be aware that blocking the savviest of users is impossible, but that isn't so bad. If they can make it hard - hard enough that most users give up on it - then they will have a clear victory.

In other words, block the most popular VPN services. Block the easily installed browser plugins. But realise that some people are always going to get through.

One of the avenues Netflix could pursue is decidedly less technical - they could just take a look at your credit card.

Most Kiwi Netflix customers will be using an identifiably New Zealand based credit or debit card to pay for the service.

Currently, this is no barrier to accessing content - meaning your New Zealand Netflix account can watch American content when you are travelling in the US, or using a service to look like you are.

Sorting out a US credit card to pay for the service is possible, but fairly difficult for most people.

Yet Carter doubts Netflix will take this path, as they made no mention of it in the blog post.

"When people buy access to these services they don't want them to stop when they get off a plane."

Echoing a point many online have made, Carter argues that geo-dodging is superior to the alternative that some may default to - piracy.

"We should be celebrating the fact that people are trying to pay for this content," he said.

"It's better that people pay, even if it's not quite in the specific market segmentation they want."

 - Stuff

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