Can VPNs Be Blocked?
Updated: March 31, 2016
No. A VPN cannot be blocked as such. Despite all the headlines you may have read about Netflix blocking VPN users from accessing their service, this is a distortion of what is actually happening. What Netflix are doing is blocking IP Addresses which they believe come from a VPN. It is an impressive and highly labor intensive technique, which for most VPN providers will only disrupt service temporarily.
Most people who are asking us this question at the moment are users of US Netflix located all over the world. Netflix, like many other streaming services, geo-blocks its sites because of rights issues over the content it streams. Earlier this year, they proudly announced a global expansion which meant that Netflix was now available in every country on earth apart from China, North Korea, Syria, and Crimea.
Shortly afterwards they made a very big fuss about their claims to be blocking VPN users from accessing their sites. This garnered a great deal of publicity, and indeed a number of VPNs reported that their users were finding themselves blocked from accessing the US version of Netflix from overseas.
However, it was widely believed to be impossible to block a VPN as there is no real tell-tale sign to a site as to whether a user is using a VPN or not. So can a VPN be blocked? And if not, what exactly are Netflix doing?
What is Netflix’s problem with VPNs?
As a streaming service, Netflix buys the rights to those programs on its service which it doesn’t make itself. These rights are purchased on a country-by-country basis and this means that Netflix can only show some shows in certain countries.
This is a problem for Netflix because although they can offer their service almost globally now, no two countries have exactly the same offering. And a a US-based company, it will come as little surprise to learn that the US version of Netflix offers far more than any other one.
This in turn means more people want to sign up for the US version of Netflix, and as the service is geo-blocked because of the rights reasons discussed above, they have turned to a VPN to fool US Netflix into thinking they are in the USA.
Now as Netflix looks to expand and buy up more rights, they have come under increased pressure from the rights holders to stop this from happening. Previously it is something they had turned a blind eye to. But now they have decided to devote time and resources in an attempt to stop it happening.
Can Netflix block a VPN?
No. There is no magical piece of technology which allows Netflix to identify and block any user who is looking to access their service via a VPN. As an individual user, there is nothing to distinguish a VPN user from a non-VPN user. The only identifying feature each individual user has is their IP Address.
So what are Netflix doing then?
If Netflix cannot block a VPN, you may wonder how a number of VPN users are finding their access to Netflix blocked. The answer is simple. Netflix is dedicating a huge amount of time and money into identifying the individual IP Addresses which are related to the biggest VPNs.
They are then blocking these IP Address from using their service. It is something they are perfectly at liberty to do with any IP Address should someone attempt to damage their system in some way, or break their terms and conditions.
The problem with this approach is that it can only ever be temporary because there is nothing to stop VPN providers from changing IP Address that have been identified by Netflix, meaning they have to start their search all over again.
The other problem Netflix has is that there are hundreds of different VPN providers out there and it is almost impossible for them to block all the different IP Addresses of all the different providers.
How is the Netflix approach working?
Netflix are using a form of ‘shock-and-awe’ warfare to try and wrest back control of the situation. They are investing big on the problem and targeting the big VPNs which dominate the marketplace. They are then relying on word-of-mouth and their rather slick PR assault to spread the word that VPNs can no longer watch Netflix from another country.
This will no doubt put off a number of casual VPN, or potential VPN users. But those who do their research will realize there are plenty more VPN providers out there that can still offer access to Netflix.
Take Buffered for example. They are a relatively new player on the VPN market and have been making great strides in their performance in recent times, as well as offering excellent security provisions. They are also totally unaffected by the Netflix VPN ‘clampdown’.
A spokesperson told me that Buffered is “optimising their service to bypass the VPN blocks Netflix is working hard to globalise right now.” Despite not going into detail, I know from personal experience that it is working for them, and there is plenty of online testimony which suggests other smaller VPN providers are also not having problems.
So in essence, Netflix will have to spend big and on an ongoing basis to reign in VPN use effectively It seems highly unlikely that they will do this. What is more likely is that they will undertake a short-term campaign to try and spread the message that VPNs don’t work on Netflix. This will placate their rights-holders for a while, and before long the status quo will return.
Other streaming services may try a similar approach in the future as well. But none of them will be able to permanently block VPN users forever, because this is quite simply impossible.