Netflix ‘Cat and Mouse’ Game with VPNs Begins Down Under

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We are two weeks on from the dramatic start to the year in the world of Netflix. Having announced a global expansion of their service to encompass every country on the planet with the exception of China, North Korea, Syria, and the Crimea, they then stunned a large proportion of their users by claiming that they were about to start clamping down on VPN users accessing overseas Netflix Accounts.

News from Australia has indicated exactly where this announcement originated from. The Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA), which represents the rights of 25 content studios in Australia including the likes of Foxtel, Disney, and the BBC, told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that Netflix was obliged to try and stop VPN users.

Andrew Maiden, who is the Chief Executive of ASTRA said “Netflix is entitled to crack down on viewers who circumvent geographical blocks. Film studios license streaming services to sell their programs in particular geographic markets. If streaming services turn a blind eye to abuse, they're effectively giving away someone else's property. That wouldn't be right in any other industry and it's not right here…

He went on to say “Whether you agree or disagree with geo-blocking is not the point. Right now it's how film studios choose to sell their assets. One-day technology might end up forcing that approach to change, but until it does studios have the right to enforce their contracts and streaming companies have an obligation to police their rights deals."

These are strong words, but they fail to reflect the reality of the challenge Netflix face in trying to block VPN users. As we reported here at last week, the Chief Product Officer of Netflix, Noel Hunt, said at the CES show earlier this month that “Since the goal of the proxy guys is to hide the source it’s not obvious how to make that work well. It’s likely to always be a cat-and-mouse game.”

Andrew Maiden in the Sydney Morning Herald was also quoted as saying “"If providers of VPNs want to play 'cat and mouse' then Netflix should be keep playing cat to protect rights holders' rights” so the metaphor seems to be a popular one.

And it is no coincidence that it is in Australia where Netflix seems to be attempted to pounce first. This week an Australian VPN called uFlix has reported some users trying to access Netflix services outside Australia are receiving the following error message:

““You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again.”

What uFlix is reporting seems to confirm what we noted a week ago, that Netflix has not developed any new-fangled form of technology to stop VPN users. Rather, they seem to simply be stepping up their efforts to identify and blacklist the IP Address used by VPNs.

This is what Noel Hunt had indicated at CES was the only method they knew of for stopping VPNs. The problem faced by Netflix is that this approach is hugely laborious and time consuming for their teams, and ultimately futile.

Once they block a known VPN IP Address, users of that server will no longer be able to access the Netflix service. But most VPN’s have several servers in each country, so users can simply switch server and carry on.

It is also pretty straightforward for a VPN to change the IP Addresses they are using, so any blockage users face should only be temporary. As another VPN, TorGuard has noted on their blog, "Netflix will be pushing this plan forward soon, and when that happens, TorGuard will immediately deploy new server IP addresses so users can still bypass blocks."

And it really is as easy as that.

Of course Netflix more than likely know this is the case, but they need to be seen by the rights holders of the shows and films they stream, to be doing their upmost to protect their intellectual property. They want to buy up more and more rights to increase their offerings around the world, but they have to keep the rights holders sweet to be able to do this.

So for the time being, a cat and mouse game seems like the best analogy for what is going to happen in the coming months. But VPN users don’t need to worry too much. Their might see the odd interruption in their service, but much like Tom and Jerry, the mouse is always likely to emerge victorious.

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