December 7, 2016
When Netflix rolled out to more than 130 countries at the beginning of this year, many people in those countries were overjoyed. Then, two months later, many of them were not.
Netflix isn’t the same in every country. Each has its own catalog of TV shows and movies depending on where it has struck licensing agreements with copyright holders. It’s generally accepted that the US has the best and largest catalog of TV shows.
So Netflix users outside of the U.S. turned to VPNs and other sorts of proxy tools to fake their device’s location and make it look as though they were located in the U.S. Simply be re-routing Internet traffic through a server on American soil, they could access the US catalog.
Then Netflix banned some of those VPNs. And then it banned smart DNS proxies, too. And then more VPNs. Customers were not happy paying the same or more as their American counterparts while being saddled with a slimmer selection of shows.
The VPN ban continues even now, with only a handful of holdouts still offering a means of bypassing Netflix’s firewall.
So how does Netflix do it? And how are the holdouts managing to evade Netflix’s ire where so many others have failed? Tech services review website Comparitech interviewed several of the remaining VPNs to find out.
How Netflix blocks VPNs
The consensus among the executives — including representatives from NordVPN, Buffered, VyprVPN, and LiquidVPN–is that Netflix identifies and blocks the servers that VPN users connect to. Because these servers are housed in their own huge data centers and not from residences on IP networks, says LiquidVPN CEO Dave Cox, their range of IP addresses are easy to spot.
Anyone who connects to Netflix from one of these servers receives an error message in the video player, “You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again.”
Even the VPNs that still work with Netflix only do so in a web browser. The Netflix apps used on mobile devices, smart TVs, set-top boxes, and game consoles can override which DNS servers are preferred by the VPN. This forces DNS requests–bits of information that resolve domain names into IP addresses–to a local public server, thereby giving away the user’s true location.
None of the VPNs Comparitech interviewed would say exactly how they’ve managed to thwart the firewall thus far. They don’t want to draw too much attention or give their secrets away to rivals. But Buffered CEO Jordan Fried says that if Netflix wanted to put a stop to VPNs for good, it would do so.
Obsolete content licensing
So why hasn’t it? Because banning VPN users isn’t just bad for VPN providers. It’s bad for Netflix. Netflix has undoubtedly lost customers due to its VPN policy. They’ve either defected to other streaming services or resorted to piracy.
Netflix is beholden to copyright owners that rely on an antiquated system of laws and contracts that haven’t aged well in the internet age. When everything is available anywhere at any time, limiting your TV show or movie to a single geographical region is ultimately a futile task. It’s simply not enforceable.
The VPN execs agree: content licensing practices desperately need to evolve.
Choose: entertainment or privacy?
The biggest ethical argument against a VPN ban is that users are forced to sacrifice their privacy for entertainment. Remember that VPNs are fundamentally privacy tools to prevent ISPs, governments, and hackers from snooping on users’ online activity. People use them to access private internal networks for work, secure public wifi hotspots at hotels and airports, and bypass censorship in countries without freedom of speech, among other things.
Even if a VPN user in the United States connects to another location in the United States just to secure their connection, Netflix will still try to prevent them from watching video.
As NordVPN CIO Emanuel Morgan points out, Netflix is now in 190 countries, many of which have intrusive internet surveillance, mass internet censorship, or no net neutrality protections–all issues that can be mitigated with VPNs.
VyprVPN’s Liz Kintzele, VP of sales and marketing at parent company Golden Frog, sums it up nicely: “Any time VPN use is discouraged, even subtly, it carries cybersecurity risks.”
An ongoing battle
Netflix doesn’t seem likely to change its stance on VPNs and proxies anytime in the near future. The few remaining VPNs that Comparitech interviewed seemed optimistic, but not certain that they would be able to continue offering a workaround in the coming months.
Comparitech maintains a regularly updated list of VPNs that work with Netflix.
Paul Bischoff is a tech writer covering IT-related subjects since 2012. A digital nomad who depends on the internet to make a living, he's always seeking out the best value and highest quality products and services on the web. He previously worked as the China editor at Tech in Asia and is a regular contributor at Mashable, as well as several blogs for internet startups around the world. You can find him on Twitter at @pabischoff.